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Tapping in to seasonal workers

Tapping in to seasonal workers The Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) titled its 1989 Crystal Ball Report "Personnel: Preparing to deal with difficult people problems in the '90s and beyond." The Crystal Ball committee predicted that the reduced availability of a workforce would become a major problem for the landscape industry. Without a doubt, they were right on target.

The industry, working with state and national associations as well as 4-year universities and 2-year community colleges, is doing a good job of creating a more-educated workforce. ALCA, in conjunction with numerous state organizations, provides and promotes certification programs in construction, maintenance and interiors. Through these collective efforts, a new breed of potential employees has emerged. We now have more educated, energetic and motivated young people working toward industry-related degrees than ever before. While the 4-year universities and 2-year community colleges continue to improve and increase the potential supervisory and managerial talent, demands still outweigh the supply.

Help wanted: Good employees The most immediate problem is not with people already in the industry working on certification or students working toward a degree. Where most contractors of landscape services are failing is in their ability to find, attract, hire, train and retain more good entry-level employees.

With the unemployment rate at its lowest level in 24 years, and all the underlying economic indicators looking favorable for continued growth, the continuing problem of an increased demand and a shrinking supply of labor remains. Whether you read a trade journal, examine an industry survey, attend a local, state or national conference or seminar, or talk to your peers, you are likely to hear the resounding lament: "What are we going to do for labor?"

Defining "good" may mean different things to different people. However, it is probably safe to assume that it should include being reliable, willing and able to do hard physical labor under sometimes difficult conditions. In some areas, conditions are so bad that a "good employee" is defined as a body that shows up--not necessarily a person with a bright or promising future.

Many different factors have led us to this dilemma. Changing demographics and changing attitudes toward manual labor have been devastating. A near-universal belief exists that says our work ethic has changed. As a society, we have much less experience with physical work and an almost insatiable expectation of instant gratification. It wasn't long ago when we could count on America's youth for employees--high school and college students. Many were looking for that first job--summer employment or a part-time job during school. This is no longer as reliable a source as it once was, and the competition for this dwindling pool is fierce.

Not only does competition for labor come from within the industry, much more of it comes from outside. For the available workforce, we have fast-food outlets, retailers, convenience stores and other service industries with jobs paying up to $7.50 per hour or more. Some unskilled construction and manufacturing jobs offer even more, plus an attractive array of benefits. When these jobs are available with regular working hours, and perhaps a cleaner and more comfortable work environment, you can see what we are up against. Who, then, would be attracted to an industry characterized by hard physical, often boring or repetitive labor, working long and irregular hours under often difficult conditions presented by the vagaries of the weather (hot, cold, humid and rainy), and in an industry not known for paying high wages?

How then, can we change this situation? While no one answer or easy solution exists, improving the image of our landscape-services industries would help immensely. The best and brightest in our industry continually strive for professional and personal growth. They further their education through attending seminars and conferences. They network with other successful contractors sharing tricks of the trade. They attend trade shows seeking technical superiority, and they have recognized and acknowledged that business savvy and acumen are the keys to survival in a highly competitive environment. The image of the industry has been steadily improving, but we still have a way to go.

Unfortunately, we still toil in an industry that has few, if any, barriers to entry, and too many people do too little, if anything, to enhance the image of the industry. Until we improve the appeal of our industry, we will continue to lose potential employees to other, more seemingly glamorous or exciting careers.

To improve our ability to obtain and retain high-quality employees, it is important that we first recognize our responsibility to review our expectations of each individual we hire. We further need to identify the amount of training we are prepared to offer to each new hire. By first reviewing our actual needs and preparation for employee training, we can better utilize the pool of available individuals who live within our communities to better fill our seasonal openings.

Your ability to be creative when trying to fill job openings may well differentiate between finding good workers and just finding bodies to do work. Consider a flexible hiring strategy. For example, hire two part-time employees to fill one full-time position. This may seem like more trouble than it is worth, but you may find quality workers who need flexible scheduling to fill a class schedule or other scheduling difficulty. For some employers, these creative staffing solutions also can add additional benefits. Specifically, the federal government offers a Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to employers that equals a percentage of employer-paid taxes for hiring individuals that fit specified criteria. For information on how you might qualify for a WOTC credit, contact your state office of Employment Security, local Private Industry Council (PIC) or local social-service agencies that sponsor employment services. In addition, your contact with the above-listed sources will provide you a multitude of resources for hiring quality workers. Let's consider the factors that influence the individuals these resources will represent:

* Welfare recipients. Dramatic changes in the welfare system require individuals who have not recently worked to immediately return to employment--and succeed. The government will no longer offer benefits to these individuals, who have been redetermined as eligible to return to work. Generalizations of individuals are unfair, but this is a workforce that you need to highly consider. Individuals who have not recently worked may be uncertain of their role as a worker, and a company that invests in these workers will need to plan on additional time to train and prepare these workers for employment expectations. But the potential of this vast employment pool is more than most companies can ignore.

* Retirees. Downsizing. Rightsizing. We all have heard the corporate lingo over the past decade as our industries have re-adjusted the workforce to meet changing economic needs. But, the fact is that many workers are available whose companies decided their services were no longer needed earlier than the individual was ready to retire. Utilization of this workforce can have dramatic effects. Individuals with interest in your hands-on seasonal work may be available. In addition, use of retirees to assist with strategic planning, budgeting or marketing plans are but a few of the ways that a company can look for assistance from a retired individual. Contact your local American Association of Retired People, Service Corp of Retired Executives or social-service agency for information about senior-employment programs.

* Persons with disabilities. Like every person within the workforce, a person with a disability has abilities. A creative company will review its work and job descriptions to locate positions or change job responsibilities to better utilize a good employee.

* Work-release programs. Work-release programs for incarcerated individuals may be available within your community. Contact your local judicial system for information.

* Immigrants. An employer needs to be prepared to document the authenticity of each individual's legal status in the United States. Penalties for failure to do so are harsh and can include stiff fines and imprisonment. But, when you handle the paperwork properly, this is an excellent resource for seasonal workers. In most communities, refugee programs sponsored by social-service agencies or churches are available to assist a company in finding qualified workers.

* The future. Work with your local high schools to introduce students to careers in our industry. We must make students aware of the many excellent opportunities that are available to get "turned on." Hiring young persons still in school for weekend or summer work or even "school-to-work" programs is one way of doing this. Before doing too much or going too far with youthful employees, be sure you know the limitations imposed by not only your insurance carrier but also both state and federal laws governing youth employment.

Training and monitoring new employees All new labor will come from diverse sources, some of them old, most of them new. To adapt to some of these new sources, you will have to be more than merely tolerant. You should not only accept the diversity but commit to understanding new languages, unfamiliar customs, value systems and behaviors.

In today's demanding race for new labor, your success may be directly related to your skills in human-resource management. It is imperative that you develop and continually refine your recruiting, screening and hiring procedures. Make sure new employees receive a thorough orientation and rudimentary training before they go out on a job. The training should be ongoing, and you should monitor new employees closely. Also, do not forget to evaluate them. Everyone wants to know how they're doing and what they can do better.

"Keeping good employees is greater than getting new ones." Your No. 1 priority is to keep your current employees satisfied. Therefore, make the necessary concessions to see that you achieve this goal. * Make sure your pay is competitive--better if possible. * Try to provide benefit packages reflective of your employee's needs or desires, perhaps a menu approach. * Create a positive and professional work environment by providing safe, clean, well-maintained vehicles and equipment, and provide uniforms. * Establish a career ladder, provide educational aid and promote from within whenever you can. When possible, improve retirement plans and job security. * Communicate, make employees believe they are part of something valuable and that you value them.

You also may want to re-think the way you conduct your operations, eliminating techniques or procedures that are labor intensive. Increasing efficiency involves hiring the right people, providing them with the proper training, tools and equipment as well as leadership and motivation. You need to find ways to do things faster and better. Employ technology, mechanization, production systems and simplification whenever it is feasible to reduce your current labor requirements. Do not overlook the advantages accrued when landscapes are re-designed or enhanced with labor savings as an objective.

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