Hiring the Right People for Landscaping is Harder Than it Looks

Apologies in advance, but get ready for a rant.

On second thought, no apologies. This topic literally comes up in the first two minutes of nearly every conversation I have with any business owner, HR professional or manager. It runs across all types and scale of business. From doctors’ offices to large institutions to mom and pop operations, everyone bemoans that we can’t find enough good people.

I don’t want to stereotype or disparage any generation, but in the technological age, children simply have not grown up playing in the dirt, building things out of scraps, jumping out of trees, blowing stuff up. I’m sorry: proficiency in computer skills is a good thing but is it is not the end-all-be-all of what’s needed to prepare a young person for a productive work life.  

We have a generation of people who have never held a tool. As a long time Scout leader I can tell you that only one out of twenty kids these days can do a single pullup when we get them. Problem solve, fix things, adapt? Forget it. Self-manage?? I’m doubled over in hysteric fits of laughter. It is a national tragedy, both socially and economically.

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Over the years, we’ve had many people come to us saying “I want to work, I’m a great worker,” often to find that they physically cannot make it with our crews. “It’s too hot, too cold, too hard, I got a blister.” I had someone come for just one day and not show up again because he got chafed.

This is my opinion - disagree if you want: we have lost our physical strength and stamina in our quest for an air conditioned, cushy life. We have been overprotective and not allowed our children the natural experiences and consequences that teach people how to get by in the world.  

But the thing is, it doesn’t just affect the trades. Body and mind are more closely connected than most people realize. In losing physical toughness, we’ve lost mental toughness, too. And that affects everyone.

The attitudes I hear from some of these young people flabbergast me. Our interviewers have been asked, “It’s a problem that we smoke weed?” Yes, it is! Just because dope is legal in Colorado doesn’t mean you can smoke it there or here then show up on the job. Marijuana stays in your body for thirty days. Have an accident at work and let that show up in the drug test; you and your employer are both toast. Alcohol is legal too, but that doesn’t mean you can have it in your system when you’re driving my truck. Go talk to the insurance companies for a bit of clarity.  

I don’t care if you’re hiring a computer programmer or a receptionist or wait staff, if they can’t show up to work on time and sober and focus for a few hours on what they’re supposed to get done, how is society supposed to function?

The other issue is that we’ve somehow come to believe in our society that if a kid doesn’t attend college their life is wasted. Well, I have news for you: every job in the world does not involve the use of a device. We have a great dearth of skilled tradespeople right now. After World War II the combined labor of all those skilled artisans made our country great, and now they’re dying off and we don’t have anyone to replace them. Instead, we’ve managed to put a stigma on good, honest work. And the result is that the trades are crying out for good, intelligent people and willing to pay them well from day one—even as our young people wring their hands over the cost of a college education.


We need to make it socially acceptable again to recognize that for some people college isn’t the answer. The fact is that going through a skilled apprenticeship program can get you more money faster and often with better long term earnings than a bachelor's degree. Why not create apprenticeship programs, mentoring and education that helps people find what they are truly suited to do?

In the meantime, the need to hire is ongoing. We and other employers invest a lot of money trying to find the right people for the sake of our team, our customers, and society in general.

At T. Lake we really are cautious about whom we hire. We want people who culturally fit with the rest of the team so we are happy together as a team. People who are technically competent, have a strong work ethic, and share our values. And yes, they have to pass drug tests and criminal background checks.

We work hard to vet our employees. We cast a wide net using social media, newspaper ads, referrals, and networking. Before they talk to us, in addition to the written application process, we snoop every candidate’s social media profiles. We want to know what they’re putting out there, it’s a great indicator of who they really are. We call their references, we criminal background check drug test, and then they begin their training and development.

Think we’re going overboard? I don’t, and here’s why:

Last year we embarked on a major recruiting campaign using both social media and traditional methods. Our search yielded us over 1200 candidates. Using algorithms, personality testing and other devices, we whittled that 1200 down to thirty-odd qualified candidates who met our minimum requirements for skill level, experience, and other factors. Out of the thirty that we personally interviewed we hired six. Despite all six certifying that they had no felony issues and could pass a drug test, only four of those did pass both hurdles. Of the four, just two made it through the probationary period of employment.

1200 candidates to get two decent employees. You do the math.

We’d love to hear about innovative solutions or governments that are exemplary in developing youth to build a great workforce. What do you think?

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