How to find good help

April 13, 2015

Chuck Bowen

I was paid a very heartening compliment last month. I was in Tennessee, giving a talk about hiring to a group of landscapers. After my presentation, one came up to me and said, “Thanks for what you said up there. You made me realize that I’ve just been sitting around bitching for years. I’ve got to get off my ass and go do something about it.”

Now, excusing the gentleman’s salty language, I think he made a good point. Contractors have always had trouble finding quality employees, and it’s not gotten any better lately. According to our 2014 State of the Industry Report, 36 percent of landscapers say the biggest challenge to growing their business is finding quality candidates for hire.

To find many of those candidates, contractors rely on the H-2B program. In fiscal year 2014, the industry employed about 35,000 seasonal workers, more than three-and-a-half times the next largest segment. The program solves a true need – it brings skilled labor to landscapers who can’t find it anywhere else, when they need it the most. And without it, many contractors would be up a creek.

But H-2B is a stopgap at best and a crutch at worst. In early March, the H-2B program shut down, leaving many contractors scrambling at the beginning of their season. But even after it gets running again, how reliable will it be in the future?

So what’s a landscaper to do? Here are some ideas I shared that night in Tennessee.

  • Finding new employees is someone’s job. You have someone who is in charge of sales. You have someone who’s in charge of operations. Whose job is it to make sure you have a quality team?
  • You might have to pay more. The highest-paid entry-level crew position in the industry is a spray technician, who makes $11.20 an hour at the national average. Without overtime, that makes a gross annual wage of about $21,000. That’s not a lot.
  • There’s a lot you can’t fix. The guys who apply just to get unemployment benefits. The guys who work one day and then complain of the heat and quit. The guys who quit for a quarter more an hour. Those types of prospective employees will always be in your market. Don’t waste time worrying about them. Everyone else has to deal with them, too.
  • Focus on who you already have. You (hopefully) have a couple of solid employees. Ask them why they work for you. Ask them why they stay. Then ask if they have any friends looking for work.

There’s no one solution to the labor problem. L&L has been writing about it since we started publishing the magazine three decades ago. But the main point of my presentation – and the point of this column and the whole magazine – is that you have to try something to solve the problem. The federal government isn’t going to find you more quality employees. Sitting around and bitching isn’t going to, either.

– Chuck Bowen