The Business Case for Certification - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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The Business Case for Certification

If you are seeking ways to stand out as a highly-skilled lawn and landscape company, consider investing in your team members’ Landscape Industry Certified (LIC) credentials. NALP offers certification for six categories: business manager, exterior technician, interior technician, horticulture technician, lawn care manager and lawn care technician.

Shayne Newman, LIC, president of YardScapes Landscape Professionals, based in New Milford, Connecticut, says their entire team takes pride in their industry and strives to be the best landscape professionals they can be.

“Having our staff earn Landscape Industry Certification credentials is a way for us to stand out and prove that we are working hard to be the most highly trained and professional team as possible,” Newman says.

Jeff True, VP of operations for Hursthouse, based in Bolingbrook, Illinois, says certification gives their team members a sense of achievement outside of the company’s in-house training and it shows they take their craft seriously to become the best at what they do.

Benefits of a Certified Staff

Joel Hafner, LIC, president of Fine Earth Landscape, Inc., based in Poolesville, Maryland, says he pursues having a Landscape Industry Certified staff so he can become a Landscape Industry Accredited Company. Currently, he is seven employees away from reaching this designation.

Thanks to having a significant number of certified staff, Newman’s company has earned the Landscape Industry Accredited Company title.

“Earning this designation is a mark of excellence at the company level, which has created a great sense of pride within our entire team,” Newman says. “Being a Landscape Industry Accredited Company clearly sets our company apart from our competition.”

Hafner says some of the main benefits of having a certified staff is being recognized as one of the industry leaders. He says their employees are better trained thanks to the certification. He says they also use their certification for marketing with customers, as there are certain clients who prefer that they have certified staff.

Joe Lewis, LIC, account manager for Environmental Management Inc. (EMI), based in Plain City, Ohio, says certification helps add validity to this field as a skilled profession. EMI is also a Landscape Industry Accredited Company.

“If you’re attracting talented people that are looking for a career, it shows that this industry, this profession, can be a career,” Lewis says.

He says offering certification can attract highly-qualified people and retain them by providing them an opportunity to progress in their careers.

“We believe the best way to provide or to satisfy our clients’ needs is through developing our people,” Lewis says. “We believe clients are always the most important, they keep the lights on. But who’s keeping the clients happy? It has to be a well-trained staff.”

All four companies promote the fact their staff is Landscape Industry Certified as it helps with credibility.

“Our clients value their relationship with us because they can trust that our entire team is trained properly and that we take pride in always working hard to become more educated landscape professionals,” Newman says. “Having certified employees on staff reassures our clients that they have made a wise decision to put their landscape in our care.”

Incentivizing Certification

Employees at EMI who get certified have their name added to the company’s wall of fame.
Photo: Environmental
Management Inc.

As for who should consider getting certified, True says it is optional for their staff but they encourage anyone who wants to put the time in.

“We encourage our crew leaders the most but keep it open to anyone who wants to take it on,” True says.

At Hursthouse, those who finish their certification receive additional pay. The company pays for all the associated fees and the training manual. True says they keep a copy of the training manual available at the office for anyone if they want to determine if they would like to become certified.

For YardScapes Landscape Professionals, Newman says they encourage anyone who has been on the team for longer than a year to work toward becoming certified.

“We require all managers and senior crew leaders to participate in the Landscape Industry Certification program,” Newman says. “In my opinion, it’s important that we all lead by example, having managers and crew leaders that have hold a designation of Landscape Industry Certified sets the bar for the rest of our team.”

The company splits the initial investment for the exam with the employee who commits to becoming certified.

“We feel that they should have something vested in the process, which helps encourage them to put the correct effort into preparation,” Newman says. “If they pass the exam, then we reimburse them the 50 percent that they invested.”

Those on the maintenance and construction crews for YardScapes are given raises when they pass the Common Core exam and an additional raise when they pass each of the separate specialty exams. Becoming certified also makes crew members eligible for promotion to a management position in the company.

For Fine Earth, certification is an option but Hafner expects all his foremen to be certified. Those who do get certified receive a dollar increase to their wages.

“If they get certified today, we’ll give them $1 tomorrow,” Hafner says. “I think that’s important on an hourly basis and I think it sets them apart from their peers. I won’t move anybody into management that is not certified. So, if they want to move up through the ranks of our company, they have to get their certifications.”

He says he doesn’t approach employees about getting certified until they have two years of experience. Fine Earth pays for the certification fees, but the employee must finish the course, pass or fail. Otherwise, if they do not finish their certification test, they have to pay the company back.

Hafner says some of the work is on the employees if they’re truly interested in getting their certifications and you need to hold them accountable. Fine Earth provides 15-20 hours of in-house training as well.

At EMI, they require their mid-level managers to be Landscape Industry Certified. Lewis says those who get certified are paid a $500 bonus upfront and they are also added to the company’s wall of fame. Lewis says certification is a force multiplier.

“Nobody takes the test, passes it, and then they just put their head down and go to work,” he says. “They’re excited to tell one they got $500 in their pocket, but two their name is on the wall, and they’re talking about it. Now they feel like an expert.”

As for who takes the exam, Lewis says they often have people volunteer or ask for more information about certification, and managers can recommend people as well. EMI pays for the test and the study materials so they conduct an interview to determine if the employee is meeting standards or exceeding them and if they’re knowledgeable about the necessary proficiencies.

If they can tell the employee has a high propensity to pass, they will be provided the study materials for the test.

“If it’s a no, it’s a not yet,” Lewis says. “We share here’s what it will take to get there and here’s the time frame. It’s still a win-win because even if they’re not ready yet, you’re still showing that engagement of when they will be ready and what will it take.”

Hafner encourages owners to consider becoming certified as well.
“I think there’s much more to owning a landscape company than just having a pickup truck and shovel,” Hafner says. “There’s much more education than what the industry gets credit for. That’s why we need certification because we need to be recognized as the industry leaders.”

Invest in Your Employees

A common fear that can prevent companies from pursuing certification is the possibility of your newly certified employees leaving. Businesses that use the program say they’ve never had this concern.

“I would tell them that they are crazy,” Newman says. “The Landscape Industry Certified program is an excellent tool to help educate and train your team. Untrained and/or undereducated staff can lead to inefficient and inferior quality work which will cost more in the end. Underqualified employees can also lead to concerns of safety which may put fellow team members at risk, which is an extremely important point to consider.”

True says they believe in supporting their team members to be the best they can be.

“This will allow them to best serve our clients, grow themselves and they have an appreciation of our investment into our families that they don’t want to leave,” True says. “We have extremely high retention for the last 30 years in business. Take care of the people that take care of you.”

For those concerned about investing time and money in their employees only for them to leave, Lewis asks why would someone leave a company that’s investing in their future and creating an atmosphere where they can share their expertise and be an active influencer within the culture of a company.

“Instead of thinking, why would you spend this money and they leave, think about what if you spend this money and they stay,” Lewis says. “Don’t have a defeatist mentality. Talent costs money, plain and simple in any industry. Ours is not excluded from that. If you invest in your people, they will stay.”
EMI says they have close to a 90 percent retention rate and their certified employees don’t leave unless they are starting their own company.

Hafner also pays to put his employees through college so he says he has no fear in investing in his employees. He says it’s important to do what’s best for your business today.

“I only focus on today,” Hafner says. “I don’t worry about tomorrow. If employees are leaving companies, I think there’s probably some other cultural issue that’s involved for the reason for leaving. It’s not going to be because of whether you certified them or not and they got a better opportunity somewhere else. I would think if your employees are leaving you, it’s because there’s some culture that you don’t provide for them that they’re finding elsewhere.”

Hafner says 90 percent of the employees who have left Fine Earth end up coming back.

“I don’t think any penny that I’ve spent on certification is lost revenue,” Hafner says. “I think I’ve benefited from first the employees getting the certification, second, their peers saying that they wanted to get that and third we have these qualified people on staff that promote and educate the other employees in our business. I think all of that stuff is important. I don’t think any of that is a bad investment.”

Company Growth

All four companies say they have experienced growth since participating in the certification program. Newman says his company has been using it for over 15 years and he credits the program for helping them become the most highly trained landscape professionals in their market.

“We have had a terrific growth period in terms of volume, hiring and experience and expertise of our crew members,” True says. “Certification has certainly played a role in that.”

“We’ve been growing close to double digits each year,” Lewis says. “It’s hard to grow when you don’t have the leadership in place to handle it. Typically, you have a lot of people coming in who are entry-level. It’s great to bring in that hungry talent, but if you don’t have enough leaders and managers, then it can unravel rapidly. So, with having this certification, it helps stabilize that growth. It enables us to grow by putting those certified people in positions of leadership.”

Hafner says when he got involved with certification they had 24-25 employees and now Fine Earth has 90 employees. He believes that if every NALP member company gets involved with certification it can really make a difference in the industry.

“I’d like to see a concerted effort to get critical mass in certification,” Hafner says. “I think it’s so important. I really do believe that we should share the benefit from the education level that we put in to give our clients the best end product. I think the guy with the pickup truck and the shovel is bad for our industry and I think certification sets us apart from that.”

This article was published in the Jan/Feb issue of the magazine.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.