Despite the booming economy, many landscaping companies are in the midst of a major labor shortage that’s impacting the growth and reliability of their services. According to a 2019 study from HindSite Software, around 92% of green industry businesses – including lawn care, irrigation services, mowing, snow removal, etc. – report that finding strong applicants is either somewhat or extremely difficult. In fact, attracting and retaining employees has been one of the most frequently cited issues within the landscaping industry over the past five years. But what’s causing this labor shortage and how can landscaping companies build a truly sustainable workforce?
What’s driving labor shortages in the landscaping industry?
The lack of qualified landscaping applicants is a complex problem with no easy answers. One issue is that lawn care projects can be quite physically demanding and employees are expected to work in all kinds of weather conditions. Paired with the uncertainty of seasonal employment, many candidates are simply looking elsewhere for more stable positions. While personal preferences about job opportunities are contributing to the shortage, many industry experts point to three key challenges impacting landscaping companies: Dwindling H-2B acceptances, record unemployment and waning interest in horticulture programs.
- H-2B visa program changes: The H-2B visa program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers on a one-time, seasonal or intermittent basis, but recent changes have limited the number of workers allowed into the country. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Congress has set a cap on H-2B workers at 66,000 per fiscal year, which is half the number allowed by previous administrations. Additionally, the new H-2B rules have eliminated the exception for returning workers, further limiting the pool of candidates. For landscaping companies that rely on these seasonal workers, the new guidelines will make it more difficult to scale up their operations during the busy season.
- Low unemployment increases competition: At the end of 2019, the nation’s unemployment rate fell to a record low of 3.5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a trend that is expected to hold over the coming year. While this does bode well for the economy, it also means there are fewer prospective applicants for landscaping companies to choose from. This comes at a time when demand for lawn care services is growing exponentially, with the National Association of Landscape Professionals hoping to add 100,000 new jobs to the industry by 2025. The result is that many landscaping companies will be competing for the same pool of candidates, further complicating the ongoing labor shortage.
- Enrollment in horticulture programs is down: Although many landscaping positions do not require a college education or any special training, the lack of interest in horticulture could have serious repercussions for the green industry as a whole. One study conducted by the American Society for Horticulture Science found that many postsecondary horticulture programs have experienced a sharp decline in undergraduate enrollment. Between 1997 and 2017, the total number of institutions offering horticulture-related degrees has fallen by 53%. If this trend continues, the ASHS projects that 2-year and certificate programs may be completely eliminated.
Together, these challenges have created a high degree of uncertainty about the future of the landscaping industry. To offset their labor shortages, many landscaping companies are starting to increase their prices and retune their hiring efforts to better align with today’s job seekers. HindSite Software’s report found that 76% of respondents plan to raise their prices over the next year, with 41% of employers citing higher employee costs as their primary driver.
Building a sustainable landscaping workforce
Despite the hiring challenges faced by landscaping companies, it’s actually a great time to join the industry. Research from HindSite Software suggests that 46% of employers are planning to increase wages by at least 3% during 2020. Employers are also placing greater emphasis on employee training and development, which may help transform seasonal lawn care workers into long-term professionals.
At the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ 2019 Workforce Development and Recruitment Summit, industry leaders discussed their solutions to the ongoing workforce shortages. Among the key recommendations, the NALP highlighted the importance of regional and national apprenticeship programs that can promote the upsides of landscaping careers and attract younger workers. It’s still uncertain whether these initiatives will ease the green industry’s labor shortage, but it’s clear that landscaping companies are taking the problem seriously.