Help wanted

Help wanted

Landscapers across the country continue to struggle to find qualified employees.

November 3, 2014

It’s not breaking news, and, in fact, the complaints have been coming in for awhile – it’s hard to find good help these days. But the answers to the problem have been few and far between.

“I think as an industry we need to get together and rally around who we are and what we do,” says Jerry Schill, president of Schill Grounds Management. Schill’s company has four locations in Ohio, employs 106 people, and has been in business for 21 years.

One way Schill Grounds Management publicly supports growing the workforce in the landscape industry is by its support of the PLANET Academic Excellence Foundation. Schill’s goal is to work together with other industry leaders through PLANET in order to recruit more workers into the landscape industry before they get swallowed up by some other field.

Some companies conduct outreach to young people through industry job fairs, recruiting through Future Farmers of America programs, or by going into the high schools for career days and other work related events.

For Schill, the issue is in hiring qualified managers. In July, Schill was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article on the challenges faced by small business owners looking to hire skilled employees. A month after the story ran, Schill had received 194 inquiries from folks around the country looking to fill the five managerial positions the company has had available for about a year. The company has made several hires after the article came out, but still struggle to find qualified and experienced horticultural professionals at the managerial level.

“We are not seeing enough people energized by our industry. There’s not a lot of folks getting ready to graduate from high school or going to trade schools … we just don’t see the interest from kids anymore to enter those programs. That’s really it in a nutshell,” Schill says. “The middle management positions, Schill says, are the most difficult to fill. These jobs pay from $35,00 up to $75,000.

The lack of vocational and technical schools and reduced agricultural training programs, Schill says, have reduced a once-robust stream of applicants interested in the landscape industry. It’s unfortunate, he says, considering that at 22-year-old right out of one of these schools could start his first job as a landscape manager making $40,000 a year.

“A manager’s job is not a bad job,” Schill says. “That’s a great stepping stone. But they don’t realize that, they don’t understand it. And our industry as a whole is at fault for it.”


On the ground.

In other areas of the country, landscape business owners we talked to say middle management is easier to come by. It’s the unskilled labor force, hiring enough workers to mow grass during the busy summer season, that is the real challenge.

Ivan Giraldo is president of Clean Scapes, LP, a landscape company with offices in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Giraldo says the industry struggles from a lack of understanding of the value of physical work, and how an entry level position can lead to bigger opportunities.

“It’s becoming difficult to fill entry positions. It appears that many view physically challenging manual labor as something that may be beneath them. Many of our young people haven’t engaged in really challenging manual labor and find it easy to quit when it turns out to be more initially challenging than they expected,” Giraldo says.

“I believe that people don’t see manual labor as the first step for something big anymore. They don’t see it as a career path. They want to step into the middle of the ladder to start with, they don’t see as the ‘jumping board’ to something bigger.”

In the resort area of the Delmarva Peninsula, in coastal Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tony Sposato, president of Sposato Landscape Co., has a similar experience. Sposato says not only is he competing with other landscape companies to find temporary workers, but also the hotels, amusement parks and restaurants in the resort towns that need to hire folks to clean rooms, operate rides and wash dishes during the busy summer season.

“Mainly we are having trouble with mowing labor, guys who can mow grass. It pays anywhere from $9.50 to $13.50 an hour, depending on skill level. Those are the jobs that are hard to fill. We could pay $15 to $20 an hour and we’d still have people not show up on Monday. It’s not the pay. It’s a nine to 10-hour day. It’s hard work,” Sposato says. “Monday morning we had 11 guys not show up so we had three trucks that sat in the yard. It backed the whole week up so we had to go into Saturday to finish our schedule.”

And that wasn’t the first time.

“We just keep doing what we’re doing. Hiring and hiring and hiring, and having a revolving door. That’s all we can do,” Sposato says. “Plus, we might have to scale back and turn work away. If it really got bad, we’d have to shut trucks down and lose contracts, and that could happen easily if we don’t get the personnel to do the work.”

One way companies are filling the unskilled labor gap is by employing temporary immigrant workers through the U.S. government’s H-2B program. Employees hired under the program must be retained only for a temporary or seasonal need and be paid at least minimum wage. Workers are pre-screened in their native country and federally tracked for compliance. Most of the workers employed in the landscape sector come from Mexico.

In Texas, Giraldo says, H-2B “has become a big part of our business. The big majority of our H-2B visa employees are employees that return year after year. This helps us reduce accidents and keep our productivity high.”

Schill is a huge proponent of the H-2B program. He says a full 22 percent of his workforce is H-2B, which fills the seasonal void during the heavy summer mowing season. He's traveled several times from his offices in Ohio to Washington, D.C., to lobby in favor of the program.

“For every one H-2B worker, we can hire and retain three domestic workers. They fill the seasonal void. We’ve built an organizational model to spread out the type of work we’re doing over time. Nobody wants to take a well-paying job and find out they’re not going to work for three months a year (during the winter off-season),” Schill says.

“Because we are in Cleveland, Ohio, we have a seasonal market. We are shoveling snow November through March. So we bring in H-2B guys, some of them for 10 years. The same guys keep qualifying to come back. We know their families, they understand our systems, they are a part of our culture. They get it.”

Using the H-2B workers in the summer, Schill says, allows him to utilize his year-round talent in other ways. “We are able to spread out some of our work now on an annual basis. Our full-time staff, every one of our guys, are involved in snow operations. When we get the spike in spring, our H-2B guys arrive. We integrate them into our domestic workforce.”

Schill says he’s come to rely on the H-2B workers, so much so, that they’re now critical to his company’s success. “When the H-2B guys don’t show up it puts us in a world of trouble,” he says.

Not a perfect fix.

But a heavy reliance on H-2B is what worries Sposato.

“I don’t want to get too dependent on it because the program is a little unstable right now,” he says. “The cap, the cost to bring in labor, the wage rule, and they could just cancel the program. Those things are making it hard to use the program. So, I don’t want to rely on it.”

Will hiring practices get easier as time goes on? But with a concerted effort by the industry to recruit more workers, and a little help from the government to understand the need for seasonal laborers, things could get better. After all, things do change, right?

“Five years ago, we were in a recession and had people knocking at the door,” Sposato says. “The last couple of years, it’s been getting more and more challenging.”


Stacie Zinn Roberts is a freelance writer based in Mount Vernon, Wash.