Colorado: Healthy landscaping demand highlights worker shortage

Photo: The Denver PostPhoto: The Denver Post

For Colorado, the shortage of labor is no joke, and to make matters worse, the demand for landscaping is booming.

According to the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC), the deficiency in the number of skilled workers is the worst it has been since 2009. While some landscaping companies already are booked until July, they are unable to attract the workers to get the jobs done.

With a starting pay of $13.64 an hour, some people are less inclined to apply. B&D Landscape Inc. owner Bill Goings had to forgo a number of jobs last year because he only had one crew and couldn’t find other people to hire. He estimates he lost as much as $400,000 in new business.

“For smaller companies, it’s just needing labor positions,” Goings told The Denver Post. “That’s the dilemma, finding labor positions that people will fill and be happy doing. It’s a job that requires a steady work ethic.”

Many companies, like B&D Landscape, have had to adopt the H-2B visa program as a way to fill their labor shortages. As part of the requirements of H-2B, companies have to first place help wanted ads in local publications.

“Not one,” Goings said. “I haven’t seen one applicant. Not even a phone call or an email.”

Another route that some landscapers are choosing is promoting the green industry as a viable career path to the next generation. ALCC has recently launched a Career Pathways Program that is supposed to inspire high school and college students to see the value of the trade.

“One of the problems is there’s a perception that the only people who work in our industry are on the business end of the shovel,” said Becky Garber, president of ALCC.

While the increase in job openings has continued for the past few years, the average wage for landscapers has risen only marginally.

“Landscaping is typical of what’s happening in a lot of other industries,” said Kevin Duncan, professor of economics at Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Malik & Seeme Hasan School Business. “The wages are low, and they’re not high enough to attract U.S. workers back in the industry.”

Most companies are unwilling to invest in training a worker who may only stay for a few months, and young workers are often seeking jobs that have career paths that lead to higher pay and benefits.

“There’s a training gap in the industry that’s not being filled,” Duncan said. “If wages are low, it’s not going to attract dedicated workers that are going to seek a career in construction. It’s not worth it because it’s unstable.”

One company, Native Edge Landscapes, has been growing by about 10 to 12 workers each year and runs eight crews now. It is looking to add another 10-15 employees by summer. It retains its workers by making company culture a priority.

“It has to be real – that you’re going to grow people from entry level to as high as they can rise,” said Becky Hammond, lead landscape architect for Native Edge. “We’ve got lots of examples of people who started out on the lowest level of construction and two of those guys are now construction managers. When the workers see that their supervisor started out here and is now their supervisor, they believe that they can (accomplish that) too.”

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