Show 'em the ropes right

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

There are many different approaches to training your new hires. Are your methods working as well as they should?

No one likes being “the new guy” on a landscape or irrigation crew. There’s new equipment, new rules and procedures, plus new supervisors and their management styles to get used to. It can all be a bit overwhelming, especially if it’s your first job ever.

Now, flip that script and look at it from the employer’s perspective. The company owner has anxieties, too — about whether that new person will fit in, be capable, show up on time and stick around long enough to justify the expense of training him. And in our industry, we also have the added burden of keeping him safe while he’s doing it.

As a company continues to grow and add services, at a certain point, most owners will ask themselves, “Is our training process adequately preparing our new employees for all the things they’ll be asked to do?” Added to this is the anxiety about simply finding someone, anyone, to do our work. It’s no secret that the green industry has a critical shortage of workers, especially experienced ones. When a company owner does find someone to hire, that person is likely to be doing this type of work for the very first time. Landscape, landscape maintenance and irrigation companies have had to adjust to this new reality.

“The pool of blue-collar employees has continued to shrink, year by year,” says Tony Sayegh, regional manager at Gothic Landscape Inc., Santa Clarita, California, a large company that employs 2,100 people at its branches in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. “The economy is doing really well, so all the construction trades are, too. We’re all fighting for the same talent across multiple industries.”

Does that mean Gothic is seeing less qualified or less desirable applicants come through its doors? His answer is interesting. “We’ve had to completely shift our mindset so that we no longer look at anyone as being ‘less desirable.’ Sure — I have foremen that would love it if we’d hire nothing but 20-year veterans of the industry. That’s not realistic anymore. We just needed a better training program so it doesn’t matter what experience someone has coming in.”

Sayegh uses himself as an example. “I came from outside the industry, and nine years later, I’ve worked my way up to regional manager. It’s more about finding people that are passionate about quality and customer service. We can teach people horticulture and all the rest. Experience is great, but it’s not the end-all be-all.”

Tony Bass, founder and CEO of Tony Bass Consulting and Super Lawn Trucks, Fort Valley, Georgia, recently developed a 13-module landscape employee training system called “Train Your Lawn and Landscape Employees.” He agrees with Sayegh that it’s not about experience. “If a company believes that they must continually search for experienced employees, that’s a dangerous idea,” he says. “But the company that can truly take “the McDonald’s approach,” hiring young people and giving them a chance to develop their skills has a decided advantage in the marketplace.”

The mentoring approach

So, how do we help them develop those skills? One technique that seems to work well, at least according to the companies that use it, is the mentoring model.

Marie Trejo is president and owner of Grasshopper Landscaping and Maintenance, Huachuca City, Arizona. The seven-year-old company primarily does design/build but also has a landscape maintenance division. It’s a small company with 10 employees in the busy season.

Training is overseen by General Manager Phillip Farris. “We onboard someone every year for what you could call an apprentice position,” he says. “The maintenance training is more of a one-on-one mentorship type of experience with Robert, the person in charge of that crew. He’ll start him out on one piece of equipment and one task, working through a sequence of operations from easiest to hardest.”

Robert will show the new person every part and control mechanism of a machine and how to use it properly — and the newbie needs to pay attention, because there will be a written test later.

“The first couple of weeks he’s just learning to operate the mower and mow straight lines,” says Farris. “Then he’ll graduate to the string trimmer or the hard edger and work his way up to the blower, which in some ways is the simplest piece of equipment to understand yet the most nuanced to use effectively.”

“Maintenance is heavy on horticulture, so workers are taught to identify weeds and the different methods for killing them. Then we progress to pruning, learning how to cut perennials back seasonally.”

Farris agrees with Sayegh that lack of experience shouldn’t be a barrier to hiring. “When we’re interviewing people, our No. 1 concern is attitude rather than aptitude,” he says. “Someone’s technical skills are secondary to his being a team player with a willingness to learn.”

After a few weeks of mentoring, an employee’s talents begin to surface. “People don’t always know where their natural aptitudes lie, so we let them get their hands dirty and feel things out,” Farris says. “Some will find they lean toward softscape and plants, others will gravitate more toward hardscape and carpentry, which has more of a technical, math-and-precision aspect.”

The mentoring approach seems to work just as well at a large company as it does at a small one. Once a new Gothic employee completes his orientation, he’s started on “the buddy system,” where rookie employees are partnered with seasoned veterans who take them under their wing.

And how long does this one-on-one training go on for? According to Sayegh, “as long as it needs to. There’s no set timeline. It could be a month for someone brand new to the green industry.”

New hires aren’t allowed to touch any of the power equipment until the foreman has a notion of their capabilities. “Then, slowly but surely, we’ll train them on the machinery,” Sayegh says. “After they get a little bit more comfortable, we’ll move them up to bigger machines, like 36-inch mowers and some trimming equipment. It’s a step-by-step process.”

Multimodal training

People have different learning styles, and Bass says that training should be done in a way that incorporates them. “Some people are auditory learners, they learn best from hearing; visual learners, from seeing, and kinesthetic learners by doing,” he says. “Every training program must use all three approaches, plus a fourth one — repetition.” Hopefully this won’t trigger any traumatic memories, but you may recall that as kids, we learned our multiplication tables by being drilled in them, over and over again. Bass says that adults need that sort of reinforcement, too, via weekly tailgate meetings and refresher trainings.

Mariani Landscape, Rock Bluff, Illinois, trains new hires with a combination of video presentations, written materials and hands-on demonstrations. It’s a good example of what Bass is talking about because there’s something there for every type of learner.

“Right before our season starts, we’ll do a one-day all-inclusive training for the bulk of our returning associates as well as the new hires,” says Maintenance Operations Director Todd Vena. “We’ll go through everything at that point, including our policy book. Then we’ll break the group up and go over each piece of equipment piece by piece, honing in on safety.”

There is a classroom component, with some videos to watch, but Vena says that’s not where the lessons really sink in. “We firmly believe that in our industry, training needs to be more of a hands-on type thing; that’s what really resonates with our employees,” Vena says. “We’ll bring in some shrubs to prune, or we’ll plant a few things and show them how to dig the hole, how not to plant things too deep or too high. Then we’ll huddle in small groups and physically do the work.”

Vena touched on safety, which he says is above all other considerations at Mariani. Indeed, safety should be a big part of any good training program. “We want all of our employees to go home to their families at night healthy, with all their fingers and toes still attached and come back the next day ready for work.”

Using outside training materials

Some contractors feel that they’re just too busy to spend the time and effort coming up with their own training programs. Fortunately, there are a number of companies that specialize in green industry training. The programs can usually be customized to suit an individual company’s needs.

Bruce Cummings owns Bayview Garden Nurseries, Northfield, New Jersey, a company his parents started in 1952 and that he’s run for the last 20 years. Services include landscape installation and maintenance, irrigation, fertilization and chemical treatments. There’s also a garden center and a florist shop. It currently turns around about $3 million a year and employs about 25 people in the high season.

For years, the company had no formal training program. “Whenever someone had time, they would sit down with the new people and try and train them that way,” Cummings says. “We’d make up some material and try and do some sort of classroom exercise. Other than that, they were being trained on the job sites,” he says.

A few years ago, the company felt the need for a change and started using Bass’s modular training system, having worked with him in the past.

One improvement was noticed right away. Paperwork had always been a bugbear at Bayview; getting everyone to fill things out in a uniform manner so the folks in the office could understand it was a challenge. “The Bass system addresses how to fill out paperwork properly,” Cummings says. “It helped make everybody’s job a little easier.” Grasshopper also uses the Bass system.

“We needed to have a more systemized process for our new hires,” says Trejo. “Not having one was a problem. Now we do tailgate trainings every week, then a monthly specialized training that’s a little bit longer and more detailed. If we’re going to be fertilizing that month, we’ll go over that.”

Bass’s system is focused on customer service and people skills rather than the mechanical how-tos. “I just don’t believe that today we’ve got to reinvent technical training,” Bass says. “That’s available just about everywhere. But if you want to create a better company, you’ve got to create better employees.” Modules include “The Productive Landscaper,” “How to Move Up in the Company” and “Customer Service Success Training, Parts I and II.”

Trejo says the system has indeed improved customer relations. “The guys put more notes on their paperwork now,” says Trejo. “They understand, ‘If I don’t write this down, the office isn’t going to know about it and won’t know to tell the client.’” Whether you turn to an outside source or develop it internally, having some kind of new employee training regimen is essential, especially as your company expands.

We hope we’ve given you some good ideas that will help in creating your own educational program, one that will set your new hires on a sure path to success.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.

From aimless youth to yard keeper

Jean Williams has seen it work. As a landscaping instructor at the Turner Job Corps Center in Atlanta, she’s witnessed high school dropouts, troubled teens and kids with all sorts of strikes against them find new purpose in life by learning not just basic job skills, but life skills, too.

Job Corps is a federal program that mainly serves economically disadvantaged youth aged 16 to 24. “We train them for jobs and put them out in the real world to pay my Social Security,” Williams quips.

A green industry veteran, Williams worked at a landscape company for a number of years, after which she and her husband started their own and ran it for about 15 years. When teaching all week and landscaping all weekend got to be too much for her, she cut back to focus exclusively on Job Corp, where she’s taught almost continuously since 1989.

“Students learn basic weed-eating, edging, pruning and tree pruning, are taught how to use a chain saw, plant, design, mulch and work on landscape beds,” says Williams. “They’re taught how to operate Z-turns and walk-behinds.” They also learn how to safely apply chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and fungicides.

Hardscape skills are also taught. “We teach retaining walls and fencing, and some paving stone work,” Williams says. “They’re wanting all of us to start cross-training with other professions; I would like my students to learn cement and tile work.”

The point of the program is for graduates to get not just any job, but a job paying above minimum wage. “I have gotten an ‘A’ so far for getting my students placed and getting the type of wages the Department of Labor wants them to get,” says Williams.

One of her former students has started his own landscape business and been very successful. “He came and talked to my students,” said Williams. “Something I’ve had a hard time getting across to them is, ‘if you are working in a certain spot and you see a piece of paper on the ground, pick it up.’ He told them, ‘Any landscaper worth anything is going to stop and pick that stuff up.’”

Students who find landscape work isn’t for them have the option of coming back the next year and trying a different course. Williams says people who enjoy outdoor sports take to her classes best, saying, “I’ve had girls in here who’ve done really well in this trade. It’s about a 70/30 percent mix of men and women.”

While she concedes that it’s tough work, “to me, it’s stress-free, especially in the spring and fall when it’s absolutely gorgeous. I tell my students, you can get out there and get on a weed eater or an edger and if you’ve got a problem or something, you can think it through while you’re working.”

Williams sometimes must use behavior modification techniques with her young students to teach them how to comport themselves on the job. When she catches them at horseplay or sitting down at a job site — “one of my pet peeves,” she says — “I ask them, ‘If you did this on the job, what would happen?’ ‘I’d get fired.’ ‘So why are you doing it now?’”

“We try to turn the negative into a positive by being consistent; we just keep working with them. Some flip over and do what they’re supposed to and others just kind of fall through the cracks. You’d be surprised at how many of them come in here with the soft skills already, though, and just need some tweaking.”