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Maneuver through mounting labor pressure to develop your workforce and strengthen your culture with these insights from industry experts.

December 21, 2015

Photo: Heather Campbell

Labor is still one of a grower’s most flustering problems. In our 2015 State of the Industry Report published in the October issue, 30 percent of respondents listed the hiring and training of staff as the aspect of their business they most wanted to improve. In another question, hiring quality labor was the third most cited concern when it came to growing their business

When asked how difficult it was to find high-quality hires, the majority of growers (52 percent) rated it as difficult or very difficult on a five-point scale. Another 27 percent said it was moderately difficult, making an overwhelming majority of 79 percent of growers that struggle, in some way, with filling their job openings.

Growers said the most difficult positions to fill, in order, are: growing/technical positions (50 percent struggled to find quality help), labor (34 percent), sales (27 percent), marketing (23 percent), drivers (21 percent) and accounting (13 percent).

With a changing political atmosphere, a gradually improving economy and a lingering sense of trepidation, most growers have reduced their number of employees. In 2013, growers reported an overall staff size of 33.3 workers, seasonal and year-round. In 2014, that number dropped to 32.7. According to 2015 projections, that number will have dropped again to 30.1. This comes despite the majority of growers reporting an increase in sales, year-after-year. In 2014, 71 percent of growers said their sales were up versus 2013. In 2015, 66 percent of growers reported an increase versus 2014. Yet, finding quality labor remains a problem.

So, what’s the issue?

Finding laborers is a complex issue. About 34 percent of growers said that finding those workers was either very difficult or difficult, while another 27 percent said it was moderately difficult. A complex web of legal battles, political infighting, entrenched lobbying groups and conflicting sound bites have put increasing pressure on the horticulture industry and its labor force.

Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president, industry advocacy & research for AmericanHort, weighs in about some of the vexing issues creating pressure on the seasonal labor market and how he sees them playing out. For more on H-2A and H-2B, see the sidebar on p. 24.

Eliminating the communication barrier between managers and hourly workers can boost worker morale.
Heather Campbell
Greenhouse Management: What is the current state of H-2A?
Craig Regelbrugge

Craig Regelbrugge: First, it’s worth noting that the H-2A program is authorized in law, in statute, with literally a couple of lines of text. Yet the regulations that have been spawned by that couple of lines of text are hundreds of pages long. For employers, it’s a challenging program to approach and embrace because you can’t do so without the advice and expertise of lawyers and consultants. You have to be sure you’re using the program right or you’re in legal jeopardy. Over the years, I’ve even seen people who have used the program correctly find themselves in legal jeopardy, having to defend themselves in court. There are structural things about the program that make it really challenging. For example, and there are arguments as to why this is, the program requires that a grower who is going to use H-2A must provide housing for workers. In many situations, on a farm or on a nursery or greenhouse, the area for housing doesn’t really exist. There aren’t a lot of good local options to provide housing.

For example, sometimes there is community-available housing and if you had the flexibility to provide workers with a housing allowance (rather than provide on-site housing) that would help, but that is not part of the current program. The grower has to provide the housing. In a lot of areas, local zoning laws and the attitudes of the neighbors can make the H-2A housing portion difficult. For many people, housing is a barrier. If you wake up tomorrow saying, “I’ve got a labor problem. I want to turn to the only legal visa program available to me and that’s H-2A,” you have to solve the housing problem before you can even hire anyone.

GM: What are the potential remedies for the H-2A pressures? What efforts are underway to reform the program?

CR: It’s been an interesting journey since about the year 2000. Most of the efforts toward reform have been legislative. We have made significant progress at various points in time, including bills passing at least one chamber of Congress. What we have tried to do in these bills is be very descriptive so that the Labor Department’s doesn't have the ability to interpret the law in harmful ways.

We are largely playing defense while we wait for political leanings to change. Meanwhile, the program is growing. People are turning to it out of absolute desperation because the labor situation continues to deteriorate.

GM: What about H-2B? Should growers care about the status of that program?

CR: The H-2B program continues to be very unstable, with a cap that shut many employers out this year, and with new program rules that are a threat to long-term program viability. To be clear, growers themselves cannot use H-2B. In terms of the year ahead, there is at least a chance that limited improvements may be achieved through legislative 'riders' (policy amendments) on a couple of spending bills that Congress may consider in the coming weeks. If those riders pass, they will provide a measure of relief for the coming program year, which starts Oct. 1. If they don't, there is little prospect for legislative (or regulatory) relief until a new Congress and new President come to town.

There are some important court cases underway, and that will be where the action is. But H-2B is important because labor shortages in the supply and installation chain have a depressive effect on the industry's economy.

We like to say it’s a big industry, but it’s a small industry, and it’s all interconnected. It’d be very easy, as an example, to look at a plant disease threat as a grower problem. But if a huge chunk of a retail garden center is shut down on Mother’s Day weekend because of the possibility that plant material with a disease has been shipped in, it becomes a retail problem.

Similarly, on the H-2B side, the landscape industry is the single largest user of the H-2B program for clear and legitimate reasons. If landscape workers can’t get the work done, then the whole pipeline backs up. Everybody hurts.

GM: What about the E-Verify program? What is its status?

CR: The E-Verify program must be reauthorized by Congress before the beginning of the new fiscal year. Given all the dynamics, it is most likely that some kind of reauthorization will move without significant changes to the program, which is mostly voluntary. (Exceptions exist for some federal contracts, and also in states which may make the program mandatory for various reasons, like maintaining a business license). But there is at least a measure of risk that hardliners will push in the coming weeks to make the E-Verify program mandatory for all employers. Without broader reforms, the consequences would be devastating for agriculture and many service industries.

GM: All of these questions seem connected, in some way, to immigration reform. Do you think there is hope for beneficial reform?

CR: I think that immigration reform is inevitable, I just can’t say when. The pressures for reform are going to continue to build. In the early years, when we were on the playing field, we were leading on what our industry’s position should be in the debate. And there were serious and popular legislative proposals that would have simply reformed the agricultural piece. There was no such thing as comprehensive reform. The overall issue around us had not ripened or matured. Back then, there would have been an opportunity to take a step-by-step approach and we could have dealt with the agricultural field based off its merits. The problem now is that the issue has been bottled up for so long that every constituency group has an interest. The minute Congress tries to do anything, there’s opposition.

The best way forward in the current political world, or the near-term political environment, would be to start small, do it right. Our government is not equipped to do comprehensive reform and then implement it. Starting small would be the logical approach, but that has not proven to be the politically viable thing. I think in the near-term, it really is a question of using every available tool in the toolkit and none is going to be wholly satisfying.

Keeping the band together

“What are the tools in the toolbox? An obvious one is to try and retain workers you now have,” Regelbrugge says. “Treat your current workforce in a way that encourages them to stay.”

Matt Foertmeyer, head grower and production manager at Foertmeyer and Sons Greenhouse in Delaware, Ohio, says the company has started sending all of its employees to Cultivate. “Because we are located just north of Columbus, Ohio, we’re able to send most of our workforce to Cultivate, in a pretty affordable way,” he says. “We task each employee with the mission of finding three ideas from the show that they believe will improve our company.”

He says the top three ideas are selected for implementation and the presenters are awarded with Amazon gift cards. While not all ideas are able to be implemented immediately, Foertmeyer believes the process creates a culture of inclusion, where staff members are heard and appreciated.

“Too often there is a huge separation between owners/managers and hourly workers,” says Danny Missler, grower manager at Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, Ohio. “Providing training and respecting the ideas of those ‘in the trenches’ are key to worker comradery.”

Employers should value technical and non-technical skills, like personability, among potential candidates.
Photo: Heather Campbell

But retention isn’t just about creating an inclusive culture. It’s also about helping to meet an employee’s goals and expectations for themselves and their career.

“Ideally, employee retention consists of a balance between an employee with a realistic view of their current position and responsibilities, how much they are currently earning, a clear vision of their advancement potential in five, 10 or 20 years; combined with a company that is willing to facilitate these needs,” says Michael Roe, co-owner of Windmill Nurseries in Franklinton, Louisiana says.

Retaining your current employees may seem like a simple task, but it can be difficult. Most growers increased their hourly rates for workers in 2015, and about a third of growers increased their salaried compensation versus 2014.

“Sometimes, it’s not all about money,” Missler says. “Sure, it starts the ball rolling but the promise of longevity of employment, and a reputation for treating people fairly goes a long way to getting and retaining workers.”

Two tactics that more operations are employing to find new talent are social media and attending trade shows. Young professionals are likely to be consumers of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and other social sites. Creating and maintaining a vibrant online presence will make you more visible to potential employees, particularly recent graduates. Attending a trade show gives you exposure to young professionals and students who might be visiting, but it also gives you facetime with veteran members of the industry who might be looking to make a career change.

But to find good talent and employees interested in sticking with your company, employers should also consider hiring outside of the industry.

“We have had two grower positions open since July. Just recently we filled both of those positions,” Roe says. “One hire has been in the restaurant business all his life and drove past our nursery for years and felt compelled to stop in and see if we were hiring. He had no plant experience whatsoever, but that enthusiasm and desire to work outside with plants makes up 75 percent of what I need in a good grower/employee.”

Roe says his company looks to hire workers with little to no experience in the industry. That way, they can more easily be molded into the Windmill culture. “Certainly there are times and positions where we need to hire based on knowledge and experience, but those positions are fewer and further between in relation to the amount of 'field general' positions that are available,” he says. “When upper management has a strong degree of knowledge and experience, it can be more readily passed down and taught to employees that are raw.”

The labor market continues to get tighter and growers are faced with an increasing worker shortage problem. “We have to remember that we’re in competition for good workers, along with many other businesses,” Missler says. “We all struggle to find people who have a good work ethic…You must reinforce how each group or crew contributes to the overall success of the company.”