It’s no secret that the tree care industry has seen its share of challenges over the past few years. Perhaps chief among them is finding qualified workers, and getting them to stay. The seasonal nature of tree services presents many challenges but is not unique. According to Landscape Business, 92% of green industry businesses, which include areas like tree pruning, lawn care and floriculture, reported having difficulty finding qualified applicants for their open positions. The issue is being acutely felt for utility arborists in areas that may require their services the most, including coastal areas with a higher chance of natural disasters like wildfires, floods and hurricanes.
But what exactly is leading to these shortages? Several factors top the list, including:
Changes to H2-B Visa Policy
Many tree services depend on seasonal migrant workers who come to America through the H2-B Visa Program, which is used to fill temporary, non-agricultural jobs for which “there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available,” according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Recent policy changes have dramatically cut the number of these visas that are approved each year. The annual cap for workers currently stands at 66,000, with half approved to arrive in the US in October and the other half in April. In the past, twice as many workers have been approved. Congress also recently eliminated cap exemptions for returning workers, which limits the overall labor stock and makes it harder to bring back qualified workers year after year.
For services based in areas where there are few full-time residents interested in pursuing tree care work, the H2-B program can be a godsend. With fewer workers coming into the country through it, hiring may now be a challenge.
While tree care can be extremely fulfilling work, it’s not for everyone. The field can sometimes call for physically arduous labor and even potentially risky tasks, which may not be appealing to potential employees, especially when other options are available.
Tree businesses can do their part by ensuring they follow OSHA and TCIA safety standards and recommendations closely when performing dangerous jobs like roadway clearing and damaged tree removal. Create a reputable, positive company culture where your workers know that they will be taken care of if an injury does occur. Doing so will create trust and help you attract workers who are interested in other seasonal jobs.
Over the past few years, a relatively strong economy has actually made it hard to hire tree care professionals, capping the amount of growth that contractors can have during boom times. While this is common across seasonal industries, tree care has a few unique factors that impact it. According to Simmons Tree Care, the number of available tree service workers increases when housing construction jobs are scarce since these jobs require some similar skill sets. However, as the housing market has recovered over the last decade, construction jobs have increased nationwide.
In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how the economic decline currently resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic affects the job market in seasonal professions like tree care.
Making the Most of the Situation
Even the most efficient tree care businesses can’t grow without adding workers who are committed, hardworking and ready to stay on and gain experience.
While many of the root causes of labor shortages nationwide, such as new policies surrounding H2-B visas for workers and open positions in other industries, are out of the hands of contractors, companies can still take positive steps. New technology is helping teams do more with smaller crews and increase efficiency and safety.
Ultimately, however, no matter how far technology advances getting the right people on your payroll will always be essential. Tree care professionals must put their best foot forward and create company cultures that encourage career growth and present new hires with the information and motivation that they need to turn tree care and arborist work into a fulfilling career.