Summer labor lessons

The last thing a landscaping contractor wants to deal with during the height of the summer is an employee who doesn’t show up for work or who quits in the middle of a job. What’s a business owner to do when a labor issue arises in the midst of the industry’s busiest season? Here, the leaders of two landscaping companies share their secrets for bridging labor gaps as well as finding the right employees and keeping them around all summer long.

 
 

Plan ahead. At the beginning of each year, The Bruce Company of Wisconsin, a residential and commercial design-build and maintenance company located in Middleton, focuses on putting together a profitable budget. “We plan out our budget for the year so we’re fully understanding what we want to accomplish, how it aligns with sales and profitability and what we have to plan for hiring,” says President and Chief Operating Officer Seth Nicholson.

 
 

Schedule smart. For The Bruce Company, a scheduling strategy is crucial for managing workload, staff and hours for laborers from week to week. In the past, the company utilized simple systems such as white boards and spreadsheets for managing schedules. They recently kicked up their planning a notch by building an in-house automated schedule, which Nicholson says is a “vast improvement for response time.”

 

The automated schedule provides instant visibility on upcoming work for a range of four to six weeks. The goal is to get major projects done within that time span. If a job is projected to take more than six weeks, management will add hours to the work week for certain teams to bring the schedule back within their ideal timeframe.

Alternatively, if a project is expected to take less than four weeks, they might cut back on hours slightly to stay on track with their projections. This helps the company manage overtime and excess hours while keeping the schedule and overall workloads in alignment, Nicholson says.

 
 

Find the right fit – but be flexible. Hedge Above, a lawn care and landscaping contractor based in Wapello, Iowa, that serves high-end residential and commercial clients, tries to hire employees who are a good fit for the company and who complement existing teams.

 

“We’re evolving a very methodical hiring process that is slower on the front end,” says Geoff Proffitt, president and director of sales and marketing. When the Hedge Above leadership team members interview potential employees, they develop a psychological profile of applicants so they can ensure new hires are placed appropriately. “You don’t want to have all of the Type-A people working together,” Proffitt explains.

Another key strategy for The Bruce Company involves assigning all employees to designated crews – including, for instance, planting, irrigation, and aquatic crews, as well as three levels of hardscaping crews. Each crew has specific capabilities that align with certain projects. But the company also makes an effort to cross-train employees. “That way, we can get a more diversified workforce that can ebb and flow and fill in gaps, helping out in other areas as much as possible,” Nicholson says.

 
 

Communicate core values. When Hedge Above kicked off the 2015 season with a weeklong orientation for all employees, a key goal was to get them focused on the company’s core values. “We’ve taken the opportunity to say, OK, these are the core values. How does that decision you want to make align with those core values?” Proffitt explains. “It has to align with at least two – if it doesn’t, that’s your trigger to say that’s not how you want it to go.” He says that ideally this sort of decision-making will filter out into the field. “We’re excited about implementing that. We think it’s going to go a long way toward alleviating labor issues,” he adds.

 

 

Motivate employees to stay. To nip labor issues in the bud, give employees reason to stick around. Nicholson believes strongly in the power of benefits for employee retention. “We do benefit packages with 401B plans, health insurance and competitive wages,” he says.

 

He also believes that ensuring employees have the right tools and equipment so they are comfortable and safe makes a difference. “It’s fairly common sense, but not always prioritized for a lot of businesses,” Nicholson says. “We make it a priority so employees feel comfortable and valued and want to come back year after year.”

Proffitt also stresses the value of offering solid compensation packages and clear mentored paths of advancement for improving employee retention. In addition, Hedge Above is working to expand its offerings to include snow removal, fruit tree pruning and Christmas light services. This helps to shrink the window of downtime when employees have to be laid off, which can help prevent the loss of valuable seasonal employees who leave the company when they find year-round employment.

 
 

Cover during crunch time. Whether employees are temporarily unavailable, quit spur-of-the-moment or give the usual two-weeks’ notice, dealing with unforeseen labor shortages is a challenge no matter how much companies plan for it. When an unexpected opening occurs, Nicholson says The Bruce Company posts a job listing for the position immediately. If possible, they first look to promote from within or at least rearrange to cover that position until a new employee can start. “It’s a matter of everybody pulling a little bit harder to cover that slot, particularly at peak times,” Nicholson explains.

 

To help cover unforeseen staffing problems, Hedge Above employs what Proffitt calls a “pinch hitter,” a part-time team member who can be called to fill in on short notice. When not working in place of absent team members, the pinch hitter takes care of smaller jobs such as hedge trimming, plant bed maintenance and other service offerings where needed.

 
 

Be prepared for problems. It’s not just issues with employees that cause unforeseen work delays, of course. Equipment breakdowns can also be problematic during the summer months. Hedge Above has a small engine mechanic on staff who tries to catch most potential problems through regular maintenance.

 

Occasionally, however, problems happen out in the field. Because the company covers a wide geographical market, to save time, employees may seek help locally rather than driving back to the shop. “If it’s a tire or frame crack on a mower that needs to be welded, I’ve had guys go out and find someone who can do that right in the town they’re servicing so they can get back to work,” Proffitt says.

While they wait on repairs, employees will often identify other work they can do – for instance, while a riding mower gets repaired, they might mow and trim some of the smaller lawns scheduled for the following day. “It keeps them out in the field and getting jobs done,” Proffitt says. “It all kind of boils down to having the right people in place – we want people who are able to make those good decisions.”

 
 

Battle burnout. “We make a diligent effort to balance days on and days off so employees get at least one full day off, if not the majority of the time two days off,” Nicholson says. “The recovery and recuperation time is a crucial factor on our end.”

 

The management team at The Bruce Company includes a landscape or department manager, a production coordinator who oversees multiple crews, and crew leaders responsible for specific crews. “We make it a priority to look out for each other so no one individual or crew is being overloaded,” Nicholson says. Yet times with heavier workloads and longer weeks do happen. The goal in crunch times, says Nicholson, is to manage the duration of those heavier weeks, so no one is working five heavy weeks in a row.

 
 

Seek advice. Proffitt stresses the value in talking to other business owners about strategies, policies and processes they have put into place to alleviate labor issues. He also believes that joining local organizations such as chambers of commerce and development groups can be useful because “great ideas can spring forth from sources other than just green industry businesses because labor issues affect a plethora of companies.”

 

 

 

 

 

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