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Help Wanted: Landscaping companies try to dig up workers

The worker shortage means some landscaping projects are taking longer to finish.
Published: Dec. 7, 2021 at 5:34 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 8, 2021 at 5:42 AM EST
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SOUTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) - With snow-powdered trees and slushy sidewalks, landscaping may not be the first thing on your mind.

But if you’re looking to update your yard next summer, you’ll want to start thinking about that sooner than later.

In this week’s “Help Wanted,” our Kayla Martin digs into why projects are taking longer to complete and how one landscaping company is handling high demand for service when it’s hard to get employees in the door.

Jeff Swanson has been working for di Stefano Landscaping for about a decade. He loves the outdoors and has a passion for gardening.

“Went to school for art and education and somehow found my way here,” Swanson said.

He started with the company as a laborer and is now the company’s top foreman.

“One of the reasons for that is he is able to really train. We’ve got probably seven or eight staff members now that have been trained by Jeff. He’s a really good teacher. And he’s an artist,” said Chris di Stefano, the owner and president of the company.

There is no cookie-cutter tradesperson.

“Just be ready for anything, any day,” Swanson said.

“We use plants and stones and soils and water-- he sort of uses that as his medium,” di Stefano explained.

di Stefano wants to break down any stereotypes about what a tradesperson has to look or act like.

Close to 20% to 25% of our staff is female. They work circles around some of the other staff,” he said.

But they’re just not seeing the number of applicants they used to. That, mixed with supply chain shortages and a higher demand for services, means projects are taking longer to start and finish.

Projects are now booking out a year.

“The landscape profession has a lot of work to do to get in front of young candidates. And teach them how they can build a career in this field, and how rewarding it can be,” di Stefano said.

He says those interested in the trades may not even be aware of their industry.

“That’s probably been one of the biggest labor challenges for the landscaping industry in general,” di Stefano said.

They’re actively recruiting and putting more focus on it than usual.

“Going to job fairs and trade shows both virtually and in-person. We’re reaching out to local trade schools. We’ve got a sign in the front of our facility,” di Stefano said. “A lot of the hires we’ve made have been referrals from our existing staff.”

Unlike many outdoor services, they offer year-round work. That’s because they have three different divisions: snow, landscape and maintenance, and landscape construction.

“We bring people from different divisions, whether it’s maintenance or construction into the snow division in the winter to keep them busy,” di Stefano said.

There are currently four to five positions available. By the spring, they will be hiring an additional 15 employees.

“Everything from entry-level, no experience necessary, willing to train,” di Stefano said. “As well as foreman-level positions. That obviously would require some experience in the trade and the ability to run a crew and run jobs.”

Starting pay for entry-level positions is $15 an hour up to the high $20s for experienced workers, plus overtime, PTO, vacation time, full health care that the company covers about 80% of and an IRA with a high company match.

But you have to love what you do because the job does have its challenges.

“Forty, 50, 60 hours a week isn’t for everyone,” Swanson said.

And the weather won’t always be on your side.

“Sometimes it’s beautiful and sunny and it’s like idyllic landscaping, plant flowers. Other days it’s pouring rain and you’re banging on stones,” Swanson said.

That’s why di Stefano is “hiring for character over skill.”

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