Remember the good old days … during the Recession of 2008. Today, many snow and ice professionals look back on that time fondly because the dip in the US economy provided this industry with a surplus of available labor. People were eager to work.
Fast forward a decade and the professional snow and ice industry needs people – desperately. Nearly every contractor is trying to crack the code on how they’ll get fully staffed for Winter 2019-20. They’re holding open-house events, scouring social media and offering financial incentives to secure not only frontline sidewalk crews, but plow truck drivers, loader operators and even crew supervisors.
For seasoned snow contractors like Brent Teddy, the president of Teddy's Lawn & Landscape in Livonia, Michigan, each season seems to be a bit more challenging to find enough bodies to fully populate his winter operation.
“It’s crazy,” Teddy says. “Sure, we need shovelers for sidewalk work, but we’re also trying to find good area managers, too.”
Even with a cooling of the US economy and an upward adjustment to the unemployment rate, snow contractors must realize that there’s been a fundamental change within the work force and things may never return to how they once were, says Fred Haskett, consultant at the Harvest Group and regular Lawn & Landscape magazine contributor.
“I was talking to someone the other day who said they looked forward to the (next) recession so that they would have (an available labor pool) again,” Haskett says. “I looked them right in the eye and said: ‘Ain’t gonna happen.’
“If we don’t recognize what has happened and begin to change our ways, even if we do have a recession or (an economic) correction and unemployment goes up three to four points, that work force isn’t coming back unless we change our ways.”
Brad Caton, founder and CEO of Invictus Professional Snow Fighters, which operates in Vancouver and Seattle, treats attracting and retaining labor as seriously as he does sales. Dealing with the labor question is a full-time endeavor at the company, but this full-time procurement approach alleviates much of the preseason stress contractors have to manage when staffing their winter crews.
“If you can put in the effort... this shouldn’t be a problem,” Caton says. “The (available labor) is out there. You just need to get to them before someone else does.”
One recent trend Teddy has observed is labor looking for long-term financial commitments from snow contractors, which is forcing him to consider placing seasonal labor on the payroll as part-time employees to secure them throughout the winter.
“People are living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “And if you can’t pay them (consistently) then they’re out looking. So, you’re left considering whether to pay them a minimum salary every week in order to keep them.”
Another is competing for workers against other labor-intensive industries that pay temporary seasonal help cash “under the table.” Teddy explains a potential labor pool of laid-off seasonal workers is available, but they prefer to be paid off the books in cash to avoid interfering with their unemployment benefits.
Keeping good operators, drivers and hand laborers has become more difficult in the last few years, says Stacey Hinson, director of sales at Snow Systems in Wheeling, Ill. However, winter’s unpredictability exasperates this labor problem.
“If we have too long of a period with no snow during the winter months, (seasonal workers) lose interest and then are not available when it does snow,” she says. “We have to hope for consistent snowfalls each month to keep them on board.”
Thinking out of the box financially has helped mitigate this problem. In addition to paying a very competitive rate on time, Snow Systems pays seasonal managers a small salary – sort of a small paycheck – to be ready and available.
Financial incentives are also key to Invictus’ approach to attraction and retention. Caton says he aims to compensate his service providers with the highest rate possible – around 10 percent more than his competitors are paying in the market.
“This can get tricky, though, because this (compensation) mean a higher price for our customers and is reflected in our contracts,” he says, adding that he’s able to ensure clients that he has the labor force necessary to fully service the contract.
So, how do you bridge this labor gap?
First, recognize what has worked in the past most likely will not work for you in this current labor environment, says the Harvest Group’s Haskett. Contractors need to understand what the priorities are of the work force that they’ll be engaging with and attempting to secure, whether seasonally or permanently for the long term.
“What worked 10 to 15 years ago will not work now and won’t work in the future,” Haskett says. “We have to change our ways, and there’s a whole variety of things that need to be done with that.”In managing labor matters, business owners and managers are, in some respects, swimming again the current because people no longer see a company as a career. Therefore, Haskett advises to start with ensuring you don’t lose your existing key people.
“If you’re putting all of your eggs into the recruiting basket, and you’re not paying attention to the changes you need to make for the long haul, then all you’re doing is continuing the churn,” he says. “You have to focus on what it takes to keep people in place, focused on improving their job skills, to keep them happy and provide them a with a good positive experience. This will not only help with retention, but also with recruitment.”
Many snow contractors feel pressure to use premium wages as a means to secure not only full-time labor, but also seasonal workers. While wages have been on a steep incline, Haskett warns snow contractors that, at the end of the day, it’s not just financial compensation.
“It’s not all about money,” he says. “It’s about experience and engagement.
“If you’re not working on the cultural aspects (of your company) and creating a better environment for your people – both existing and future – you can throw a lot of money at a lot of people and it’s not going to give you a solution.”
Haskett suggests snow contractors offer prospective employees a clear career path at their company. This can be done in the form of a documented career ladder, where each rung represents the next level within the organization and what you need to do to successfully reach that level.
“That way you can have a document that says here’s where you’re at today and here are the three to four things you must accomplish to apply for that next-level job,” he says.
Attitudes Toward Growth
Surprisingly, those contractors who cite the inability to attract and retain quality labor were not sheepish on their attitude toward growth, with 76% of respondents anticipating growth for Winter 2019-20. These figures nearly matched the industry average for anticipated growth.
Furthermore, of those companies where labor is the top concern, more than 60% anticipate at least 10% growth heading into next spring. The “sweet spot” for growth seems to be around 7% to 10%, according to the data.
Surprisingly, 15% of this segment of snow and ice professionals anticipate growth between 16% and 20%.
Market Pressure’s Influence
Not surprising, but more than 80% of respondents who indicated labor as their top management worry also indicated they would be susceptible to acquiring labor-saving equipment for their snow and ice management operation. That number is 5% higher than the industry average, according to the data.
This robotic era may be upon us. Michigan snow contractor Brent Teddy says he’s already seeing robotic mowers in the landscape industry, and there are some companies introducing robotic versions for snow and ice management work.
“What I’ve seen is mostly geared toward sidewalk work, so we may only be a few years away from autonomous (robots) handling this aspect of site work,” Teddy says. “However, I think we’re probably light years away from automated plow trucks clearing parking lots.”
Management experts suggest company culture has a direct impact on your ability to retain everyone in your ranks down to the newest individuals on the shovel crew. Fred Haskett, a consultant at the Harvest Group, advises snow contractors need to dedicate time to become well versed on the priorities of not only their existing workforce, but of those they’re seeking to hire.
“Engagement is a big thing with the current labor force,” Haskett says, adding this starts with a well-established and defined company culture. “They want engagement with the companies that they’re working for and engagement with their supervisors … They want a social relationship with their (superiors).
“We have to change the way we look at culture and approach it from (the worker’s/employee’s) point of view,” Haskett adds.
A Deflation of Market Pressure
Elevated levels of competitive market pressure seem to be easing some for North American snow and ice management contractors. According to recent and historical State of the Industry data, contractors reporting elevated levels of competitive market pressure have been lessening, with the data reflecting a 25% drop from 2012 to 2019.
And while those snow professionals reporting an improvement in the competitive level in their market didn’t necessarily gain favor at the same rate, the data points to those contractors reporting a healthy amount of competition in their respective markets as absorbing the difference.