Scarce-labour solutions

Attracting and retaining the talent for your trucks  

BY SUSAN HIRSHORN

Skilled trades workers and labourers were among the top 10 jobs Canadian employers had difficulty filling, according to employers surveyed last year by the Manpower Group and Workopolis. This is no surprise to the landscaping and horticultural trades, where labour shortages have been keenly felt for several years. 

Older tradespeople with their sights set on retirement are not easy to replace with younger folks for reasons summarized in a 2014 blog by Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum. “One of the biggest complaints we hear from prospective apprentices is that employers aren’t interested in hiring young people without experience,” Rynard writes.

She cites a survey indicating that although young people are open to careers in the trades, their parents, teachers and friends have a poor image of trades in general, and don’t encourage them to pursue this pathway. Certainly, the horticulture trades’ traditional image of low paying, seasonal work involving long hours of physical labour hasn’t helped recruitment. Happily, this image is changing, thanks to intensive efforts by the industry to promote workplace health and safety and best business practices. 

And, more green industry firms have comprehensive on-the-job training programs these days. The industry-led On-the-Job Training system, for example, helps employers in the landscape horticulture sector to train employees in a consistent and effective way.

While there is no getting around the physical demands of many horticulture jobs, this is not perceived as negative when paired with such benefits as working with nature, creating beauty and enhancing the environment. “We need to come across as the sexy industry that we are,” observes Sally Harvey, Landscape Ontario’s education and labour development manager. “Sometimes we don’t tell our story well enough. We’re a very humble industry. We’ve really got to work at telling our story as an association and as individual employers.”
 
Create an employer brand
So what story — or “employer brand” — should you communicate to prospective employees? Employer branding is the process of promoting a positive image of your company as a “good place to work” or “an employer of choice” in the minds of the job applicants you want to reach. 

Although eliminating the seasonal-pay stigma might boost your brand, salary alone will not attract the employees you want. “Job satisfaction is a huge motivator for many potential hort workers,” says Ed Hansen, president of Hansen Lawn and Garden, based in Ottawa. “If someone is looking solely for money then that person might not be a right fit for your firm. But if they’re looking for a place to grow, to expand their knowledge, to work in a professional, ethical environment — and you offer it — these factors can be part of your branding to employees. The reality is that not every company has a professional environment. Someone can work at a place that pays two dollars more an hour, but isn’t as ethical as another company.”

Vicky Smith, of Contact Coaching and Training Services in London, Ont., agrees that distinguishing yourself from your competitors is an important part of employer branding. “Ask a landscaper about three local lawn service companies and he’ll tell you the differences amongst them; this one says you’ll work with the best crew chiefs, that one says it pleases every customer every time and the third one creates a fun work environment so employees want to come to work,” she states in the HR Toolkit her firm developed for Landscape Ontario.

Ask employees to spread the word
The HR Toolkit and other industry resources suggest a variety of places to advertise directly for new employees. “However, an excellent way to promote your brand is through your existing employees,” adds Smith. “They know what it takes to succeed at your company, and they understand its culture.” 

Consider setting up an employee referral program where a bonus is awarded to the referring employee once the new hire passes his or her three-month probationary period. Encourage the use of social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) for referral purposes, but not before installing a Social Media Policy for employees. They need to understand the importance of professional online behaviour, since they are representing your firm. 

Screen for “soft skills”
Although horticultural certification or other academic credentials may be necessary for certain positions you need to fill, many jobs can be satisfactorily filled by people willing to be trained, providing they have the “soft skills” — attitudes, values, personality — that fit with your workplace. Says Hansen, “When a job candidate tells me, ‘I don’t have experience but I don’t want to work at a desk, I want to be outside, I want to be a part of building something with my own hands,’ I’d rather hire that person than one who says, ‘I just took a course and think I deserve $20 an hour.’”

Posing the right questions during the job interview is key to screening for attitude, values and personality. Ask open-ended questions (not those requiring just a yes or no response) to find out what you need to know. When interviewing individuals with work experience (in or out of the trades), here are some questions culled from a webinar by Tony Bass, a landscaping business consultant in Fort Valley, Ga. 
  • Why did you apply? What’s happening in your life to make you change jobs?
  • Tell me about a job that you loved. What did you love about it? 
  • Tell me about a time when you hated your job. (The love/hate questions should reveal something about their interests and work ethic. For example, someone who hated a job because he or she was asked to work overtime could be a liability at the height of your season).
  • If you were offered a job tomorrow, when could you start? (Candidates willing to start “tomorrow” — leaving a current employer on the lurch — can do the same thing to you!) 
Encourage top talent to stay 
Good employees are the foundation of your business: the key to customer satisfaction and to profitability. An attractive compensation package beyond their standard wage can be a strong incentive for them to stay put and an additional way to polish your employer brand. The Canadian Nursery Landscape Association (CNLA), for example, has many member savings programs that can extend to your employees. This includes discount cards for Mark’s, Work Authority or Choice Hotels. The HortProtect Insurance program has options for health and life insurance, home and auto insurance, as well as a group RRSP program for your employees. Contact the CNLA office for details on these programs.

Providing opportunities for career development is another powerful way to retain top talent, says CNLA’s past president Michael Murray. He is president and CEO of Murray’s Garden Centre and Horticultural Services, Portugal Cove, Nfld. “We have a young man who started this year who got certified as a heavy equipment operator,” he explains. “We exposed him to the scope of what we do…from installing trees, shrubs, landscapes and green roofs to the construction side, where we have carpenters and bricklayers. As he saw all of this he was amazed. Our managers noticed that not only did he do a great job with the excavator and other equipment, he was also helping the guys get bricks on site and started laying a few bricks himself. So when he said, ‘Gee, how do I become a lead hand here?’ we said, ‘You need to acquire more horticultural skills. Are you interested in the apprenticeship program?’ He said that he was. We believe it’s important to get to know our staff — their interests, attitudes and potentials — and to support programs that will train them.” 

Not everyone you train will remain with you permanently. And, yes, losing a valued employee hurts. However, Murray and Hansen agree that refusing to train people because they “might” leave makes no sense. Says Hansen, “Everybody talks about not wanting to train someone because it takes so much time. But imagine if you don’t train them, and they stay!” 

When addressing the common fear that highly trained staff will leave to start their own businesses, apprenticeship advocate Terena Hantelman, Garden Centre Manager at Aubin’s Nursery, Carman, Man., told this to the CNLA: “Competition is a good thing. Quality workmanship and a good reputation will overcome most competition. If your employee wants to start a business, encourage a specialization and work together to achieve a greater portion of the market. Encouraging the growth of a ‘sister’ company would benefit all involved.”

Susan Hirshorn is a Montreal-based freelance writer for business, professional and consumer audiences.