Recruiting and retaining a dependable work force

What's the biggest factor holding back the U.S. economy? Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Congressional Budget Office have both cited the shortage of workers as the factor most limiting growth.

That's definitely true in the landscape industry. In a recent national survey, nearly 50 percent of landscape contractors cited "lack of labor" as the main factor hampering their company's growth.

With demand for workers at an all-time high, recruiting and retaining skilled employees has become a major challenge.

Adding to this dilemma, landscape contractors see major opportunities for growth in 2000. Half of those polled say they plan to expand their business by offering new services, including irrigation installation, aeration, landscape design, landscape lighting, seeding/sodding, tree services, organic/non-chemical fertilization, snow removal, driveway resealing, recycling, ponds/water gardens and deer control.

Many contracting firms have come to realize that recruiting top personnel is a continual process. Owners and managers are always on the lookout for people who could bring valuable new skills to their organization. By actively recruiting, or at least actively networking, you will be better able to expand your businesses when opportunities arise, especially when economic times are good.

Tips for finding good employees * Work your network. You and your company are known in your community. Use yourself and your employees as "ambassadors" of your organization. Mention to friends, family and neighbors that the landscape industry is growing, and that there are plenty of opportunities for people who enjoy working outdoors and like physical challenges and who get satisfaction from seeing a job completed. The best part of this method is that each new contact comes with a "built-in" reference. To make this work, your team members will need to have true pride in their profession.

* Pay a "finder's fee" to employees who recruit a new team member. For example, you can pay employees a "bounty" of $25 if the person they recommended for an entry-level position is hired and $100 if that person stays for six months.

* Look for employees who have a genuine interest in the landscape business. Community colleges, vocational schools and high schools often offer courses in the landscape and horticultural fields. Students in these programs have a natural interest in joining a company where they can develop their skills. Some schools also have intern programs that allow you to work with a candidate part-time before hiring them full-time.

* Prospect constantly. Even when you have no open positions, be on the lookout for new team members. Your business cards (or company literature) could reflect this attitude by saying something like: "Professional Landscape Services-It's a Growing Business." Place help-wanted advertisements year-round in association publications. Use a "blind box" ad if you want to screen the prospects. Sometimes a talented employee comes your way when you are not actively looking.

* Be a magnet for new talent. Portray a professional and successful image in your community. Company shirts, hats, trucks and yard signs all create a corporate identity. Emphasize to employees and clients what sets your firm apart. Prospective employees want to join an organization that is a leader, uses up-to-date practices, has access to the best tools and equipment and offers ongoing opportunities.

* Encourage your local landscape trade association to offer a career day where students can meet with industry representatives to learn more about career opportunities. Find out when local colleges, high schools or shopping centers have career days. Sponsor a table-top display that shows photos of your best projects and hand out materials about careers in landscaping. You can get these materials from your trade associations.

* Attend local home and garden shows. Set up a table-top booth to display large photos of your best work. These shows often attract prospective clients and people who are interested in working in the industry. Have materials from trade associations on hand that discuss careers in the field.

Recruiting employees: interview techniques When screening prospects, start with a telephone interview. Plan to spend 10 to 15 minutes on the phone finding out about the prospective employee's background and why he or she is interested in the job. If you have an office staff, your assistant can often handle this assignment.

Allow 20 to 30 minutes for an initial face-to-face interview. Plan your questions in advance. Remember, your first impressions also can be key indicators of how your clients will view this person.

Consider a "team interview" format. Include a co-worker in the interview to ask questions about the applicant's interests, training and experience, career goals, how he or she would handle difficult situations, etc. After the interview, your co-worker can provide you with feedback.

Check references with past employers. Look for someone who has a track record of reliability, whom you can count on when the assignments or deadlines get tough.

Show promising candidates a solid career path. In these days of high-tech jobs in climate-controlled offices, outdoor employment can look less attractive. The challenge is to demonstrate to candidates that they can move upward in your organization, and that the green industries represent a genuine career opportunity with many rewards: working outside with the environment, being part of a team, enhancing your community and creating landscapes for recreational use and scenic beauty. The personal rewards can be as fulfilling as the monetary.

Benefits can be as important as wages. Many service-industry jobs, especially those in the retail sector, provide little in the way of benefits. Investigate new benefits for your long-term employees. Younger employees and employees with families are known to value flexibility as much as wages. Tap into this growing trend with flexible working hours, paid time off and special bonuses for weekend and evening work.

Retaining employees: keeping the best people on board When you have assembled crews that operate efficiently and have supervisors you can depend on, you are on your way to expanding your business. Keeping these valuable employees should be a priority. By understanding what motivates employees, you will be better equipped to keep these key people on staff. Consider financial bonuses; perks, such as valuable gift certificates; career training programs; alternative benefits; or other incentives that your staff would appreciate.

Here are guidelines used by many successful companies: * Provide solid job descriptions. Make sure employees understand their areas of responsibility and what is expected of them. Employees will have a sense of purpose and control, and you won't hear, "It's not my job to do that."

* Develop an incentive program. You will retain the most motivated and skilled employees by offering cash bonuses (or perk points) for productivity and sales acumen. Service or installation technicians who sell customers on the "extras" and "upgrades" deserve recognition for their efforts. So does the crew that gets a project done right in less time. Some companies have even developed a "scorecard" system where the employee is evaluated daily by their supervisor on specific performance factors. Once tallied, the employee's daily scores determine their incentive compensation (or perk points) for the week.

* Offer special opportunities for career growth. Investing in your employees is investing in your business and your customers. Your local trade association regularly sponsors training seminars for employees to help them gain more expertise, even licensure in certain fields. If you are considering expanding into new services, such as landscape design, irrigation installation, landscape lighting or water gardening, create a "staff specialist" in these areas. He or she can attend special classes or manufacturer's programs to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to help you grow in these lucrative new markets. Additionally, they also can help train your other employees in these specialties.

* Pay attention to diversity issues. Each employee on your team is unique and expects to be treated according to his or her values. Make an effort to bridge the cultural gap. For example, companies that have a large Hispanic workforce often appoint a bilingual team leader who acts as liaison. This key person can make sure that Hispanic employees feel they are a valuable part of the team. At the same time, he can identify employees who will be candidates for career advancement.

* Encourage supervisors and crews to feel pride in their work. It reflects well on a company when a boss is proud of his crew, and the crew is proud of the work they accomplish.

* Celebrate victories. Show special appreciation for jobs well done. This does not mean you have to pay a bonus all the time-a verbal or written thank you or lunch on the boss shows your appreciation.

Some companies lose sight of the value of people and the cost of attrition. When you consider the investment required to hire and train new staff, and the consequences to business performance, you will realize the value of investing in your people. Building a mutually beneficial relationship with your staff will always pay big dividends in loyalty and performance.

Jeff Carowitz is vice president of marketing for Hunter Industries.

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