Finding qualified employees has long been a challenge for companies in the green industry. Hours can be long, the work is physically demanding in all kinds of weather conditions, and year-round employment can't be guaranteed to everyone. In addition, workers in our industry don't get the respect they deserve, despite the fact that becoming a highly skilled landscape professional requires an enormous amount of dedication and hard work. These are all factors going back decades, but lately matters have gotten even worse for green industry companies trying to hire talented employees. Let’s review some of those new and unique challenges.
What’s behind the labor shortage?
As I mentioned, landscaping is a tough job that requires tough people, and unfortunately it’s not the most respected or straightforward career path. Three current factors that are most relevant are: a reduction in H-2B workers, an improving economy, and a lack of education and training opportunities for the landscape industry in Indiana.
The first challenge is a shortage of H-2B workers because of changes in federal policy. H-2B visas are temporary work visas allowing workers to temporarily come to the U.S. for seasonal employment. Dozens of landscape companies, nurseries, and greenhouses in Indiana rely on these workers. This year federal policies have slashed the number of H-2B applicants getting new and renewed visas. This has taken hundreds of people out of our local labor market who companies have traditionally relied on. Many of these H-2B recipients are employees who have come back to the same company year after year, but their applications were denied this year. The owner of Rosie’s Gardens in Carmel talked to CBS Channel 4 about the challenge earlier this year.
How does an improving economy affect us? Our continued recovery from the recession is undeniably a good thing, but it does create challenges for our industry. Demand for professional landscape services is increasing, while the low unemployment rate leaves fewer prospective employees to let us take advantage of these growth opportunities. The long hours and physical challenges of the work make the job impossible for some and unappealing to others, and there’s only so much that higher wages and benefits can do to bring more people in before our services become unaffordable.
The previous two factors apply across the country, but our last challenge is unique to Indiana. When it comes to formal education opportunities, we trail far behind other Midwest states. We only have one high school level program, one Associate’s degree program, and one Bachelor’s degree program for horticulture and landscaping in the entire state that train people for the kinds of skills they need to get their hands dirty in the field as highly skilled tradespeople in our industry. In contrast, Ohio has thirteen Associate or Bachelor programs and one high school program, and Illinois has twenty-one Associate or Bachelor programs and twelve certification programs. Kentucky and Michigan also have us beat. This means fewer people are aware of horticulture and landscaping as viable career options, fewer skilled tradespeople are ready for hire, and we believe it contributes to the overall lack of respect for the hardworking employees in our industry.
Our industry isn’t just sitting back and letting this happen, however. The National Association of Landscape Professionals (of which we are a member) has launched an ambitious initiative to attract new professionals. Closer to home, Susan Yoder of Martinsville has started Seed Your Future, a non-profit that has gone national in its efforts to recruit young people to careers with plants. A few weeks ago one of our team members visited a middle school to talk with students about careers available in horticulture and landscaping. But it’s slow progress, and it does little to help us right now.
For some more information about how landscaping companies across the country are struggling, we like this article from U.S. News.
How is it affecting us and you?
To put it simply, this is the most challenging year we have ever had when it comes to recruiting and hiring talented, dedicated team member for field work. It has become nearly impossible to hire for our existing client base and production rate, let alone hiring enough people to grow into the opportunities we would love to seize. Our desire to hire only the best candidates is now at odds with our need to fill open positions to complete contracts and projects. Our vendors are facing the same challenges, so even if we were running at full capacity we would still be limited by the struggles of the rest of the industry network. With our team being as stretched as it is, every case of the flu or family emergency or unexplained absence leaves us unable to stick to our plan for the day or week or month. And then on top of that, we’re at the mercy of the weather. We can all remember snow in April, extreme heat in May, and now early freezes in October, right? All of these things have long-reaching effects across the entire season.
This means you are seeing delays on your project installs, rescheduled cleanups, inconsistent mow schedules, and other inconveniences. We have worked hard all season to do our best to prevent our challenges from becoming your problems, and we absolutely hate to give the impression that we’re making excuses. However, the landscape industry and all of its connected industries are in crisis mode due to labor shortages, and we want to give an honest account of what is going on and some of the reasons why. For those of you who have been patient with us so far, we can’t thank you enough. For those of you struggling to understand the constant delays, we hope this sheds a little light on the situation. Please continue to be patient with us as we as a company and a member of our industry try to come up with solutions to this serious problem.