NALP Workforce Summit aims to solve industry labor issues

By Sarah Bunyea

A number of speakers at the two-day event offered ideas and solutions.

Missy Henriksen, NALP vice president of public affairs, addresses attendees at the association's Workforce Recruitment and Development Summit Feb. 12, 2019.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals, Fairfax, Virginia, hosted its first ever Workforce Recruitment and Development Summit Feb. 12-13. Held in Alexandria, Virginia, the think tank was part of NALP’s Industry Growth Initiative, a series of national media relations, advertising and outreach campaigns that aim to grow the industry and its workforce. Over 100 industry professionals gathered to share and identify solutions to the green industry’s labor crisis. The two-day event included a variety of speakers exploring big picture topics, as well as round-table dialogue between attendees.

Missy Henriksen, NALP vice president of public affairs, said “71,000 full-time landscape industry jobs went unfilled in 2017. This stat comes from the Bureau of Labor and is the most recent stat we have. I think we would all say that number is much higher and feels much higher.” According to Henriksen, the lack of seasonal, entry- and management-level employees is the biggest impediment to growth in the industry. Contractors are turning away business and canceling contracts because there are not enough people to do the work. Employment continues to be the biggest pain point for industry companies.

But NALP is working hard to change this. Henriksen said, “We need parents to validate and give a positive response to their children when they express interest in a green industry careers – that’s not happening now, and we aim to change that through some of the campaigns we have going on.” One example is the “Why I Landscape” campaign. Launched last year by the Industry Growth Initiative, it promotes landscape professions and encourages students and career seekers to consider opportunities within the industry through digital advertising, media outreach and social media content.

In addition to talking about diversity and hiring veterans, one of the most talked about ideas at the NALP Workforce Summit was the importance of getting people interested in green careers when they’re young.

In fact, several landscape companies have been successful introducing landscaping curriculum in their local schools. Caitlin Clineff, recruiting specialist and company ambassador at Myatt Landscaping in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, says, “We are all facing the same problem – a labor shortage. The heart of the issue is how our industry is perceived in today’s society. The only way to change that is for us to do something about it ourselves, and the key timeframe to be reaching people to change their perception is high school or earlier.”

Myatt Landscaping hosts landscape learning days for local students, which include a facility tour, hands-on activities, Q&A time with the staff, and, of course, free food and company swag. Clineff says the key to reaching this young generation is to use strong, clear consistent messaging and provide real stories about real people, because people have to be able to see themselves in a role. Since middle and high school is when young people are deciding what they want to do, it’s critical to reach them now.

When Mark Maslow, owner and president at Southern Landscape Group Inc. in Evington, Virginia, got the call in late March 2016 that he wasn’t going to get his H2-B guys, he decided that he was no longer going to rely on this program to be the sole provider of labor for his company. But looking for local talent proved challenging. “The problem was, when we started looking, we couldn’t find a lot of people. So we said, ‘If we can’t find them, we’re going to have to grow them.’” Maslow and his company now teach a one-day landscape learning experience every month at four local high schools. But rather than lecturing about topics, they allow the kids to experience the green industry for themselves through hands-on activities.

Southern Landscape Group also hosts a landscape short course during the summer, a four-day program where a group of selected students build a landscape entirely by themselves with supervision from Maslow and his team. Maslow says gaining teacher and school administration support is the key to the success of these programs. Once you have those relationships established, there’s no end to the possibilities you have to reach kids and show them the beauty of the industry.

The March issue of Irrigation & Green Industry will feature more coverage from the event.