Despite a high unemployment rate and glut of people looking for work, it's just as difficult as ever in the landscape industry to find driven, skilled employees with the right attitude. And as always, when you find a quality candidate that looks good on paper, their in-field performance can tell a different story.
These three landscape firms share the lessons they learned while hiring employees – what worked, what didn't. They offer insight on how to expand the hiring pool, use existing staff as head hunters and bring in people who mesh with your culture.
Training fresh talent
Nowhere in the job description for foreman-in-training did Kurt Bland mention his company name, or the fact that the position was in the landscaping field. "I wrote something really from the heart," he says of the new role he introduced to the company several months ago: An effort to widen the hiring pool so he could tap into the large number of unemployed individuals who want quality work, but who aren't going to apply for a laborer job and wait two years to work up the ladder.
The description called for applicants who enjoy working outdoors with their hands, and people who want a job where they receive recognition and benefits. Bland went on to describe positive attributes of his company, Bland Landscaping in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Then, he asked for a compelling response.
He screened each applicant personally. "You wouldn't believe the stories I got," he says.
One of those applicants became the first employee to progress through the 90-day foreman-in-training program Bland put in place, which involves completing a module training program that tests proficiencies in key skill areas. Account managers act as trainers, and foreman are expected to work through modules on their own, meeting with managers to learn and be evaluated.
This particular foreman-in-training grew up on a farm, spent a decade in the restaurant business managing a chain and got burned out.
When Bland told his hiring manager – the production manager of residential installation – to hire this individual, there was some pushback. "He said, 'He doesn't know anything about landscaping,'" Bland says. "I said, 'I realize that. Give him a chance. In 90 days, you'll figure out whether he can do the job.'"
The system works because Bland finds that 90 days is enough time for people with a great attitude, drive and interest in accelerating their careers to learn the ropes and prove their aptitude.
And, the previous system of hiring landscapers, advancing laborers to leads to foreman and so on just wasn't giving Bland the hiring pool he needed to battle attrition and bring on a fresh crop of motivated workers.
"Our foreman population is still 80 percent degreed horticulturists, which is kind of unusual for the industry," Bland says. "The difference is, now I'm looking at the job and asking, 'How can we provide jobs for people who are out of work, and how do we get someone in a foreman level who might not have the skills but can be trained?"
This is not to say that Bland wants to single-handedly bust the high unemployment rate by hiring in folks with no experience. It's quite the opposite. He's interested in people who want to work and want to belong to an organization that will give them opportunities.
The foreman-in-training program works because Bland can attract a larger, more qualified hiring pool by hiring people in at a greater rate than he would pay a laborer. The deal is, the person must perform and must complete the training. They are hired on the premise that they will become foreman – not continue a job at "in training" status.
The program also battles attrition. "The age-old problem in landscaping is, a foreman leaves and you don't have someone to take over," Bland says. "So, you hastily try to hire a foreman, and you can end up making some bad hiring decisions because you are in a hurry."
Bland figures for every three to five foreman, he needs one in training. That way, when a foreman gets promoted to management or leaves the company, he has someone in the wings to take over. This is important in a company with about 48 foreman.
Bland says the foreman-in-training concept isn't brand-new, but what's different is how he administrates the program: hiring outside the industry, and requiring a 90-day self-initiated training curriculum.
So far, after a few months, the system is working. "We've had several success stories and it has made a big difference in how we hire people."
Riding on staff referrals
Being located "in the middle of nowhere" means a limited hiring pool.
Add to that the fact that landscaping is a newer industry in Nick Orsillo's neck of the woods, and you have an uphill battle when it comes to finding good employees.
In the 1990s and prior to Orsillo starting Wyoming Landscape Contractors in Jackson Hole, Wyo., most homeowners mowed their own lawns. "Little by little, we brought the level of landscaping up high enough now that we are maintaining properties on a professional level – it's something we brought to the market here," Orsillo says.
So, how do you find people to do a job that's never really been available before?
You look far away and close to home. While Orsillo's greatest hiring tool is the employees who currently work for him – they provide referrals – he pushed his geographical hiring zone all the way to Salt Lake City, which is five hours away from his offices.
Of the 10 managers that work at Wyoming Landscape Contractors, only one is from Jackson Hole. "The rest have relocated from all over – mostly from back east," says Orsillo, describing how the town's beauty lures in folks from all over. They move there because they want to live in Jackson Hole, and when they get there they need to find a job. "They love it here, and those are the people who come to work for us," he says.
But hiring people isn't as easy as simply rolling out the welcome mat to newcomers. Because, Orsillo warns, it's easy to hire people and tough to fire them. He's learned from mistakes in the past not to hire just anyone to do even a laborer job. That's why he depends heavily on his employees to bring him the cream of the labor pool.
"Your employees create the growth of your company," he says. "You can't grow without good employees, and the more you grow, the more you'll get the premium employees."
People want to work for a company of scale with a solid reputation that can provide security and a real career, Orsillo says. By providing these things, he can retain good employees and appeal to their friends who might need jobs.
"Your employees will bring the best (candidates)," Orsillo says, noting that employees aren't going to introduce someone to the business that will damage their reputation.
Trusting this, Orsillo basically stays out of the hiring process, besides overseeing the company's staff in general. Foreman hire crew members, and managers hire foreman. "Me getting involved in the process is wrong because I'm not the one who will be working with the (new hire)," he says.
Of course, Orsillo provides input to foreman who are hiring, and they usually rely on Orsillo's feedback at first. But after hiring a few employees, foreman are confident and have the intuition to make the right decisions. And, as Orsillo pointed out, they will hire people they want to work with every day in the field.
"Our own employees have been the best word-of-mouth tool for finding workers – we won't just hire anyone who walks in the door," Orsillo says. "By hiring one of our employee's neighbors, friends or family, we are guaranteed that the person is a good employee."
Hiring based on culture
John Wingfield Jr., uses the interview process to tease out candidates that will "drink the Kool-Aid" at Eagle Landscape. While screening candidates, he shares the company values of teamwork, quality, character and profitability. Sometimes he asks, point-blank, "Is there anything you see in our core values you have a problem with?"
But finding out if someone will mesh with your culture isn't that easy. So Wingfield probes. He might ask candidates to explain an example of when they worked on a team. He sometimes prompts interviewees to talk about how Eagle Landscape could demonstrate character and integrity to customers. He also trusts his gut.
But sometimes, his instinct is wrong.
He learned the hard way – even after doing due diligence – that someone who really wants a job can dupe his hiring system. A salesperson he brought on for less than market value (lesson one: pay competitively and get better workers) produced phony contracts, stole from the company and cost Wingfield about $30,000 in cash flow during the six months she was working at Eagle Landscape.
"I learned what not to do," Wingfield says, noting that he focuses on hiring the best and paying them what they deserve. "If employees feel cheated, they will try to cheat the company."
However in that case, the salesperson had a track record of lying – she showed Wingfield "proof" of $1 million in contracts sold at the company she previously worked at, but Wingfield later discovered those were counterfeited.
Then recently, Wingfield experienced another hiring snafu when he let go of a general manager he hired from a reputable national landscape firm.
Wingfield says, "His behavior was not consistent with the company's core values," not wishing to elaborate on the unethical behavior.
Hiring employees you can trust is no easy task. Despite reference checks, interviews and past work experience, people are not always who they seem, Wingfield has learned. That's why when he wants to find out how employees are performing, he goes to the people who matter the most: his customers.
Every construction or enhancement project worth more than $1,000 is tagged so property owners get a personal phone call from an account manager who inquires about the performance of the crews on the site. "We ask if the job site was clean to their satisfaction," Wingfield says. "How was your experience with the salesperson? Do you feel like your property increased in value based on the work we performed? Was the crew neat and tidy?"
Wingfield gets honest answers. And then, he doesn't have to wait to discover potential problems – he gets a full report from clients and can consult with employees who are cause for concern.
"We would like for everyone who comes on board to grow with the company, but to protect the company and our customers, we have to make tough choices," Wingfield says of employee turn-over at the company. He's focused on hiring slow and firing fast, when required. Because the reality is, labor is not a dime a dozen.
When Wingfield hires people who can talk openly and often with clients, everyone wins. Ultimately, communication is what drives Wingfield's hiring process, and what retains good clients and workers.
"We ask our property managers every time we go to a property to tell us their three top concerns," Wingfield says. "Every single time, one of those concerns is communication between the property manager and account manager."
The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.