In Training

When planning for your business' success, everything flows from one absolute necessity: great people. Without the best possible employees working in your organization and toward a common goal, your journey down the road to success can quickly become an obstacle course. As industry professionals know all too well, the green industry is seasonal and business owners often are forced to deal with under-qualified employees and high turnover rates. According to many green industry professionals, the keys to finding and keeping great people are training them to succeed and vesting them in the company's success.

“Having good people is definitely a key point in any business,” says Dave Mlotkiewicz, owner of seven Lawn Doctor franchise locations in New Jersey, and employer of about 12 people. “There's no one-man show. You're only as good as the people you surround yourself with.”

TRAINING GREAT EMPLOYEES

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There are a wide variety of techniques available for industry professionals to take advantage of when training their employees. Everything from hands-on and on-the-job training to manuals and instructional videos are available. But what method works to train employees for more than a job, but rather for a long-term career?

John Lamm, owner of Lammscapes!, Jackson, Wis., and employer of about 25 people, sees the importance of regular training classes to the ongoing development of his employees. “We meet every Tuesday for Tuesday Training — Jam Sessions, we call them, or Lammscapes! University,” Lamm says. “We meet for an hour every Tuesday. All hands sit down for that. We do hands-on training and sometimes we'll have outside speakers.”

According to Lamm, it's important for all of his employees to understand the many aspects of his business. Lammscapes! considers itself a full-service landscape management company and, as such, appeals to the philosophy that its employees be full-service workers. In fact, Lamm uses his several-acre facility as a hands-on training grounds for his new employees, so they're fully prepared to provide high-quality service to his customers right from day one in the field.

For some green industry employers, it's important to provide new employees with a wide variety of different opportunities to learn. “Different things work for different people,” says Courtney Young, golf course superintendent, Settindown Creek, Roswell, Ga., and employer of about 40 people. “Having a multi-faceted approach has been effective. I can't say any one thing is better than the other.”

Young recognizes that different people learn in different ways and at varying rates. Some need to be taught by doing, while others feel more comfortable reading about processes and becoming familiar with content on a more theoretical level before diving in and getting their hands dirty.

“We start with video training on their first day and go over the first pieces of equipment, as well as hazard communication training and orientation around the workplace, and then familiarity with the golf course and etiquette of the game,” Young says. “Then they're usually assigned to an assistant superintendent to go over their first job, which will depend on their experience. If they do well, they're progressively trained in different areas.”

Mlotkiewicz agrees that new employees should have the benefit of a variety of different training methods. However, he stresses that hands-on training is the most valuable weapon in his training arsenal. “My new employees ride with the senior guys for a couple of weeks,” Mlotkiewicz says. “We have some training classes in-house on equipment, using videos. Training is an ongoing thing. It needs to be done continuously.”

For most landscape managers and golf course superintendents, communicating the value of the customer having a positive experience is integral. “You're not trying to please me, but trying to provide a great experience for the golfer,” Young says. “That's the focus. You have to be invisible, leaving a perfect product behind.”

KEEPING GREAT EMPLOYEES

Once you've successfully trained an outstanding employee, you have to keep that employee by vesting him or her in your business. Workers should understand that employment with you is more than just a job — it's a career.

“The seasonality is what makes it tough,” Lamm says. “We're intense in spring and forgotten in winter. You must keep people year-round, treat them well, show them the benefits and always try to sell year-round work to support the employees.” Lamm also recommends establishing monthly billing schedules to help sustain employees' incomes year-round.

Being that his business has four distinct facets, Lamm is also able to keep his employees working throughout what would normally be considered the off-season by keeping them trained in all areas of his business. “The versatility of a four-division business helps maintain people,” Lamm says.

According to Mlotkiewicz, the key to keeping employees is fairness. “You have to reward employees when they step up. Keeping the best people is an ongoing problem, and you have to work at it. You have to stay on top of that side of the business or you won't have a business to stay on top of.”

HIRING ADDITIONAL EMPLOYEES

The green industry is, by its nature, seasonal. So, how can green industry business owners be successful at budgeting for staff year-round? With a lot of planning and a little luck, you may be in a better position than you think to budget for next season's employees.

  • Look into the past

    Ask yourself: “How many employees did I need during the busy season last year? Was I under or overstaffed? If I made a misjudgment last year, can I afford another one this year?”

  • Look into the future

    Ask yourself: “What are my growth plans? How much advertising will I be doing this year? Will it be more or less than last year? Who will sell and service the leads it generates? Are any of my staff members looking to find a job elsewhere?”

    “We look at projections for the coming season and the productivity of the current staff,” Mlotkiewicz says. “You get a sense for when a guy is on his way out, so it's important to know when that's coming.”

  • Pray for rain, and then pray for it to stop

    Ask the experts: “What are the prevailing weather conditions predicted to be this season? Will we have a drought or a flood? Will we be buried under six feet of snow or cooked by 120∞ degree heat?”

“A lot of staffing is weather-related — seasonal,” Young says. “We know when the grass is going to start growing and when we'll have more mowing needs, and we budget all that out.”

So, you've decided it's time to hire some additional employees. What's the next step? It seems almost second nature for an employer to place a “help wanted” ad in the local newspaper or, in today's Web-based society, on the Internet. Mlotkiewicz recommends a more personal approach to hiring new employees. Instead of rolling the dice with an ad and any number of applicants, let your current staff know that you're looking for extra help. By including them in the process, you've (1) made your current staff more vested in the new employee's success, because they've vouched for the person; (2) given them the opportunity to bring on a person whom they already know and are comfortable with; (3) built a bond of trust between employer and employee that is held in high esteem by most loyal employees; and (4) improved your chances of hiring another great employee.

Sean Gallagher is the copywriter/research analyst for Lawn Doctor, Inc. (Holmdel, N.J.). He is also a freelance writer out of Toms River, N.J.

TRAINING TIPS

Whatever your employee training preferences are (one-on-one or in a group), you have great deal of information on classes and training manuals and videos on the Internet. Manufacturers as well as green industry associations supply these educational tools. The following are just a few:

  • Rain Bird offers online registration for training courses and classes held throughout the country. Available classes include Irrigation Training, Business Skills Training, Central Control Irrigation Training, Authorized Service Center Program Courses, Golf Irrigation Training, Pump Station Training and Instructional CD-ROMs. For more information, visit www.rainbird.com.

  • Jacobsen allows equipment owners and dealers to order technical manuals for Jacobsen equipment online at their Customer One page at www.jacobsencorp.com. Managers can ensure that their employees are well versed with this equipment before they head out to work.

  • The Toro Company offers operator and safety training through slide shows, videos and quizzes on their Web site www.toro.com. These educational tools focus on turf maintenance equipment safety as well as training on individual pieces of equipment and come in Spanish versions for Hispanic workers.

  • John Deere features a product safety catalog of training videos on their Web site at www.deere.com. The videos offered include Mowing Safety, Safety First with Gators, Skid Steer Loader Safety and Right-of-Way Tractor Mower Safety.

  • PLANET offers training tools in the form of videos, manuals and CD-ROMs. Most of these videos and manuals also come in a Spanish version. These training tools include Basic Snowplowing Techniques Video; Federal OSHA Compliance Manual; Landscape Construction Equipment Video: Chainsaw; and Maintenance Equipment Training Video: Power Edger. For more educational and safety training options visit www.landcarenetwork.com.

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