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The challenges of retaining staff in the turf and grounds maintenance industry

Lawn care, landscaping professionals must adapt to keep all-star employees

May 27, 2024  By  Mike Jiggens


Lawn care and landscaping workers who fit in with a positive company culture are apt to remain with their employer longer. Photo: © ArtistGNDPhotography / Getty images

Retaining staff employed in lawn care, landscaping, and golf course and sports turf maintenance has challenged employers for several years due to the seasonal nature of the work. This has been a particular concern since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are several strategies employers can adopt, however, to retain their best employees – to ensure they return for the following season – including the opportunity for promotion.

Employers representing three different sectors of the green industry shared their strategies for staff retention in March at the 14th annual Nutrite spring lawn care seminar in Guelph. Attendees heard from Nick Ovington, supervisor of parks and property for the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury; Perry Grobe, owner of Grobe Nursery & Garden Centre in Breslau; and Richard Burch, owner of Burch Landscape Services Ltd. in Waterloo.

A good work environment
Ovington said the key to retaining staff lies in the work environment the employer has created, whether it’s in the shop, the office or in the field.

Everyone wants to be recognized, to be heard and to be given a chance to make a difference, he added. 

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“They want to be inspired at work,” Ovington said. “They want to be flexible.”

Bradford’s parks department conducts annual reviews with its employees, analyzing what worked well and what didn’t, and inquires if staff wants to progress within the company. Ovington said some employees are content to continue doing the same work they’ve become accustomed to while others may want to climb the ladder but aren’t sure how. For those looking to move ahead, such options as online training will be offered.

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He says he has enjoyed success with staff retention through the pillars of encouragement, empowerment and recognition of employees.

He learned an effective means of encouraging staff during his previous employment with a private landscaping firm. Work crews were graded by report cards, based on various criteria including showing up to work on time. Bonuses were awarded to crews who met the expected criteria. Ovington said the system worked well and helped motivate staff.

Empowering staff to make decisions enables them to feel like they’re part of a bigger picture, he said, adding they can sit on or chair one of several committees. 

Bradford has an employee recognition program in place that includes monthly crew meetings. This allows employees to share what they appreciate about their co-workers. Ovington said it could be something as simple as one employee celebrating a co-worker’s efforts to quit smoking. Employees are formally thanked and acknowledged at annual staff luncheons and monthly crew meetings.

Short and long-term goals as well as education plans are set during the annual review period. He cited one employee is being groomed to become a leader, but the individual is shy. Strategies are being devised to help the employee become more outgoing and less fearful and able to better deal with staff.

“I’ve heard too much too often that we just cut the green and push the white, but that’s not me,” Ovington said. “It’s all about helping people become the best version of who they want to become.”

Another effective strategy adopted during his time in the private sector was the development of a banking program for overtime hours. During the summer months, employees would often work more than 40 hours a week. During the winter season, however, snow removal services didn’t demand as much time. By initiating a program in which extra hours were banked, staff could be paid the equivalent of working 40 hours a week the entire year.

“It helped us at the front end with training and retention.”

Keeping employees happy
Grobe said that employers can’t always do everything they’d like to do to keep their employees happy and motivated due to such factors as time and financial constraints.

“Most caring employers do their best to keep you happy,” he said.

Grobe Nursery has staff who have been working for the business for 30 years and others who have been employed for as little as a year or who work only part-time during the summer.

“You have to gear what you can do for them based on what their individual needs are,” Grobe said. “It’s hard to have a program that all people can buy into. All will have different desires of what they’re looking to get out of it.”

Staff at Grobe are kept abreast of what’s upcoming in terms of their plans. The business identifies what must be done early and allows employees to show they can achieve those needs. 

“The older ones tend to have a good sense of the expectation and they oftentimes will pass that onto the newer and younger ones that ‘here’s what they’re expected to do.’”

Optional group chats are organized to help keep staff focused on things that are important in their lives.

“I really think it’s helped a ton for keeping people on top of what’s going on and keeping them involved in a bigger thing, especially if they’re new to us,” Grobe said.

During COVID, the nursery was permitted to open – while other businesses deemed non-essential were locked down – but the company took advantage of any break it could get.

“We changed dramatically what we were doing from our opening hours to the hours we were expected to work to ensure that our staff weren’t burned out. One of the things we learned was that they were more productive, they were happier, and morale was better.”

Business hours have become shorter, but attempts are made to accommodate certain customers when the business is closed. Grobe Nursery is closed on Mondays during the summer, giving much of the staff a three-day weekend every other week. But Grobe said it must be determined if staff wants such an arrangement.

“If you make that an expectation, they may have financial constraints and you may have to let them opt in or opt out of that.”

Grobe said a big motivator for his company’s employees is food. Impromptu breakfasts are randomly arranged during which staff who arrive to work early are taken out to eat. 

“Free food really works.”

Grobe said if owner-operators of businesses don’t work hard themselves, neither will their employees. He added it’s not the same as micromanaging, explaining that employees want to be given tasks in which they can excel and to be complimented on their achievements.

If a customer is irate about something, the owner should take the “crap” instead of letting an employee be targeted, he said.

“The big thing is you back them up if there’s a situation and take the worst of it, and they know it’s you.”

Compensation is an important consideration, Grobe said. Pay adjustments are made in the spring for current staff. For anyone who is permanent, an increase or adjustment in wages is made to comply with inflation. Last year, almost everyone on staff received a significant pay raise.

“We did not want our staff necessarily to shop around for someone who will pay them more. People are as much of an investment as the forklift. Investing in people is going to give us the biggest return.”

Staff are also presented with a small gift at Thanksgiving. “It’s appropriate because I’m thankful they’re there.”

Additionally, an end-of-season performance bonus is awarded just before Christmas.

“They (employees) know that if we have succeeded and made some money, I’m the first one to tell them that they’re getting a share of it.”

Older workers often tend to pass along valuable advice to younger workers.
Photo: © nikamata/Getty Images

Staffing a challenge
Staffing has always been an issue at Burch Landscape Services, Burch said, noting it’s a challenge to find staff that fits the company’s culture.

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s just down to luck sometimes who you get to fit your company culture.”

During the spring season, staff are working more than 55 hours a week, including Saturdays.

“Saturdays we try to make it as much fun as possible. It’s easy jobs, and for us it’s just mulching.”

Having the right mix of people leads to a productive team and one of camaraderie, Burch said, adding employees will “kibitz” with one another and have fun, “even though it’s work.”

Burch Landscape also has the occasional employee breakfast and typically provides pizza for lunch on Saturdays.

Burch said an important part of his company’s culture is to ensure staff has time for family.

“Family is a big part of our company. You have to have that work-life balance.”

He said that for the first eight years after founding the company, he never took a vacation until his wife finally convinced him to take some time off. He said it wouldn’t be right for him to take time away from work during the season yet deny his employees the same privilege. 

Maintaining a work-life balance can be challenging during the winter season when snow removal work is often required with little or no notice. 

“On Christmas Day, asking your staff to go out first thing in the morning to make sure their customers’ places are clear, I have trouble with that because we have people with young families themselves.”

Burch said he has employees who will step up in such situations to volunteer working the early shift, allowing staff with young children to enjoy Christmas morning as a family.

An enticement to retain staff is a group RSP initiative that Burch Landscape has recently implemented. Staff can contribute a small percentage of their pay into the plan as an investment into their future. Burch said his employees immediately bought into the plan for which the company matches the employee contribution.

“At the end of the year, it costs you a little bit, but it’s one of those things. It’s a perk.”

Employees at Burch Landscape are encouraged to take upgrading courses and attend educational seminars which are paid for by the company.

“It only makes them better, keeps them engaged in their career and they’re better on our properties.”

Burch Landscape has tried to hire staff through a variety of ways including working with temporary foreign workers’ agencies and high school co-op programs. But they have their shortcomings, Burch said. 

“It’s hit and miss who you’re going to get,” he said of the foreign workers’ program. “You’re going to get some good people. You’re going to get some bad people.”

He worked with the foreign workers’ program for about two years but found the language barrier often got in the way. 

“If you can have one foreign worker who can speak English and help you out to translate to the other ones, that’s great, but my Spanish isn’t very good.”

The problem with high school co-op programs, Burch said, is that students are often no longer available beyond the end of the academic year when the growing season is in full swing.

Finding the right people to do landscaping and lawn maintenance work can be challenging because of the amount of physical labour involved.

“Nobody wants to be on a shovel for 12 hours a day.”

Burch said the younger generation of landscapers enjoy working on equipment and relishes the opportunity to operate new and superior machinery. Working with equipment that isn’t up to standard and which doubles the time a task should be completed will only frustrate employees who may be apt to seek employment elsewhere, he added.

Like the Town of Bradford, a banked hours system has been in place at Burch Landscape for several years. Banked hours help employees get through the winter when they’re engaged in snow removal.


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