Ideal Landscape Group, based in St. Louis, Missouri, has been using the H-2B program for close to 15 years.
The company typically requests 45 visas. In 2019, only 25 percent or less of the companies in the St. Louis area that use the H-2B program received their workers.
“We were fortunate enough to get them,” says Stephanie Leveling, maintenance division manager for Ideal Landscape Group. “We talked about it all summer and we determined our luck was probably up, so we started planning for that roughly about August or September.”
Word of Mouth
The company started talking with people in the fall who were coming in to apply for jobs. Leveling says they started hiring slowly over the course of the winter. They also began to offer employee referral bonuses.
“We paid $100 upfront,” Leveling says. “So, after the new worker works a week you get $100 and then once they’re with us for 90 days you get $200. You’re going to tend to want to bring people in, but you’re only going to want to bring people in that you can vouch for and want to work with.”
By the first of February, Ideal Landscape Group had hired 50 percent of the people they needed. They made the push for the remaining employees in February and March. The company ran ads and offered a starting wage of $15. They also offered even higher pay for those that had more experience.
“Once we realized H-2B was not going to be a reality we continued to hire for that wage because one, we had already budgeted for it, and two we expected that we would be able to get a bigger labor pool in if we were paying more money,” Leveling says.
Leveling says they also offered workers who stayed past 90 days a couple of personal days.
“We wanted to make sure that people understood that we’re not just going to run you into the ground,” she says. “We want to make sure they know we’re going to take care of you as well.”
Culture and Training
She says Ideal Landscape Group works hard to have a positive company culture. Prior to the pandemic, the company had been nominated for best workplace and it conducted a survey of their employees.
“We wanted to know what makes our existing employees tick,” Leveling says. “Because if we’re going to go out and recruit this new workforce, we need to know what they need and what makes a good place for them to work.”
The feedback Ideal Landscape Group got from the survey was how they were family-oriented and cared about individuals.
“Culture is everything,” Leveling says. “Establish your culture, and you will recruit more and more people. Word of mouth occurs, just like in business with clients. Clients are your best business card. If you treat your crew members like they’re family they’re going to tell people, and you will get people walking in the door.”
Leveling stresses that with a new workforce training is absolutely crucial. While the amount of time that must be invested can be daunting, it pays off in the following years. Companies are able to grow and focus on fine tuning their training when they invest into their workforce.
“We understand that, and we’ve been doing that, and it’s been paying dividends,” Leveling says. “It’s a slow process and we have been spoiled for years with H-2B guys that have been coming back for eight to 10 years. They knew everything about us.”
She says that not only do they have to invest in training their new workforce, but their trainers as well.
“That’s the biggest thing that we’ve learned is you have to continue to train,” she says. “And then if you do it and you get 50 to 60 percent of them to stick with you next year. Well then that’s 50 to 60 percent of the people you don’t have to train for next year. You just have to focus on the new people, and they’ll help with that process too.”
Adding Female Workers
Prior to last summer, Leveling was the only female employee with the company. Now they currently have six women working in the field.
“The two from summer and fall, they’re very qualified and we recruited them,” Leveling says. “We have a good culture and you paint the picture for them of how we operate and how we’re going to really cater to their strengths and help them improve where their weaknesses are. That was appealing to them.”
The first new female who joined the company last summer soon recruited her friend and the other women were referrals. “They came in because they had talked to other people who said, ‘Yes, this is a good place to work,’” Leveling says.
Several have come from other industries that have been closed due to the pandemic. They decided to stay because they are treated with respect.
“We have a younger workforce,” Leveling says. “So, they look at things very differently, and the guys expect them to pull their weight. Physically, they may not be able to literally pull their weight, but they’re adaptable and the guys adapt to that. They’re not doing all the heavy lifting. The gals are contributing in other ways, and it balances itself out. And I’ve heard nothing but compliments about how they’re doing their part.”
Since adding women to their crews, Leveling has noticed the attention to detail has improved. Two of the women are part of an onsite crew for a facility with 150 acres and they manage the property.
“The eye for detail, the knowledge base that they have, they can do everything from the horticulture side to irrigation to lawn care,” Leveling says. “They have brought a whole new level of expertise and detail making sure things are tightened up and they’ve done a really good job. The previous crew missed a lot of little things, and now we’ve seen and heard from the client saying those little things are showing, and they make a difference.”
Now that they’ve supplemented their workforce, Ideal Landscape Group says this is how they will be operating moving forward.
“Until the government can commit to H-2B and they will commit for a minimum of 10 years, we’re not going to play the game anymore,” Leveling says. “It’s too much like roulette. It costs too much.”
She adds that you can’t grow your business when your labor is dependent on the H-2B program.
As for whether to company will try to recruit more women, Leveling says while they’d like to have more female workers it isn’t necessarily their target.
“I want to hire people that have good attitudes and have a positive attitude and who are willing to come in and learn and that can be anybody,” she says. “I think that when you hire good people, good people talk to their friends and they talk to others, and that’s where you start seeing that recruitment.”