Forget H-2B. Start hustling.

Chuck Bowen

In case you’ve been living under a rock, there’s a massive labor shortage in the landscape industry. Forty-four percent of contractors say they have at least one open position. Three-quarters say a lack of employees hinders their growth, and a lack of quality help is cited most often as the biggest problem facing the business in the next three years.

Things should be going well. The economy is improving. Many contractors report they’re having one of their best years. Customers are finally spending again after years of a recession-induced hangover.

But that’s just it. Because the economy is improving, entry-level laborers are getting better offers elsewhere. Guys who used to drive mowers can go make more hanging drywall or laying asphalt. Brian Lemmerman, who we interviewed for this month’s Tips from the Top, lost an employee (and not even a good employee) to a road crew, where he turned a stop sign for $15 an hour.

And the H-2B program, which used to be a reliable source of seasonal help for the industry, has been whittled down to nothing but a headache. The 66,000 cap gets met in the blink of an eye. And a shutdown of the program this year – caused by bickering among the federal agencies that oversee it – meant that landscapers who requested help got it weeks late, losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in spring revenue.

Leonard Quiroz has taken matters into his own hands. Quiroz, the chief operating officer at Uyeta Landscape & Maintenance near Seattle, is working to get landscaping added to the curriculum at his local vocational school. The goal is to have a two-year program that graduates students trained up in horticulture and the soft skills they need to succeed at a green industry company, and then take that curriculum to schools around the state. It’s not a short-term solution, but it’s something, and it can’t hurt.

“Everybody can win from this. It starts to get us a pool of people who have some experience right out of high school,” Quiroz told me. “We have to solve this problem if we want to grow to where we want to be. Stop flapping your gums. Let’s do something.”

There are many solutions to this labor problem. H-2B is dysfunctional and the industry must move past it, and keep hustling for other sources of labor.

Maybe the answer is cheaper, more-efficient machines to save on back-breaking work. Maybe it’s paying crews more. Maybe it’s time to start poaching your guys back from the construction companies. In reality, it’s some mix of all these things and more.

Landscapers can hustle when it’s time to get something done. If you’re having trouble finding (or keeping) employees, you aren’t alone in asking why. It’s just time to find some better answers. 

– Chuck Bowen

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