For over 30 years, employers throughout the United States have utilized the government issued H-2B program. As seasonal businesses, this temporary work visa program fixed a problem of finding enthusiastic workers who are able to work according to weather constraints and/or periods of increased demand.
The success of the program quickly caught on and hundreds of employers were benefiting from employing legal immigrant workers during the active growing season; later waving goodbye as they went home to spend time with their families while our work was slow.
At its peak in 2008, nearly 95,000 visas were issued from the Department of Homeland Security.
But, whether we saw it or not, the H2B program came with a cost.
And not just following the intricate job posting rules, or jumping through legal hoops in a timely fashion, or paying fees that increased each year.
The biggest cost, was that without realizing it, we abandoned all the things we did before we ever jumped on the H-2B bandwagon. And in recent years, when the country outgrew the number of visas available - we realized we’re in trouble.
I know firsthand what it’s like to find out 8 days before the spring mowing season starts that we would be without a large portion of our veteran skilled workforce.
These are guys that had been with us for over 15 years.
...Guys we took to dinner and baseball games
...Guys who clients specifically requested them by name
...Guys who trusted us to provide work for them season after season.
85% of our workforce and 100% of our mowing crews didn’t “make the cut”. They would not be allowed over the border. The cap was met.
While we did everything possible, our company was left behind.
And this year, there are hundreds of other companies who are in the same position that we were.
If you didn’t get your H-2B approval, here are three key areas to look at right off the bat:
Depending on the timing of when you get the bad news, it might be beneficial to take a step back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself a few questions.
For maintenance contractors, can you do all the work currently on your books in a timely fashion? For design build and construction firms, do you have the skill sets required to accurately and efficiently complete your projects?
Ultimately, you need to calculate how far back your production pipeline reaches and at what point this date becomes unacceptable to clients.
Getting fully staffed is obviously the number one priority. But while you’re playing catch up, client retention is critical. Subcontracting buys you time. The expense and loss of margin will allow you to retain the profitable customers that you worked hard to get.
In our case, we subcontracted out nearly half a million dollars worth of lawn mowing work during the first few months of the season. It was a necessary expense, and the loss of margins allowed us to retain the profitable full-service customers that we worked hard to get.
Subcontracting low margin work is not a sustainable business model, so keep that in mind as you’re writing agreements with subs. Don’t lock yourself into any vulnerable positions and use this simply as a stepping stone and work it to your advantage. For example, only sub out the work that is farthest from your office and shop around for the best relationship and hourly rate.
The additional subcontracting expense will immediately impact your finances. Scrub your budget meticulously eliminating unnecessary spending as early as possible.
During a crisis time, this may be hard to believe, but believe me. Your clients care about YOU and your BUSINESS. They WANT to see you succeed.
Many green industry companies do a great job of sharing their wins on social media, displaying their beautiful projects on their website and describing their expertise within their blogs. However, rarely do they actually humanize themselves.
Showing vulnerability allows people to connect with you on an even greater and deeper level.
Sharing a story where the odds are against you, yet your creativity and optimism shines through will engage your clients and have them rooting for you along the way.
After we complained and moaned, our team got to work. We brainstormed and came up with any and all viable solutions. And once we chose Plan A-B-C-D-and-F, we communicated our plan and progress proactively with our clients. Not only did our email open and click through rates go through the roof, the amount of positive feedback we received was enough encouragement to continue every single day.
There’s an art to phrasing situations that could be perceived as negative. Let’s use the example that we struggled with, which was getting our spring mulching done in a timely fashion. We plotted out the timeline in which we could realistically get all of our mulching done, being short-staffed, taking into account crew training, subtracting inevitable rain days and “call-in’s”, etc.
The date we came up with to have all mulching done was June 23rd. *Gasp* As you know, this date is completely unacceptable to a residential homeowner.
After prioritizing our clients based on location, profitability, relationship, tenure, etc, we reached out the clients that wouldn’t see us until later and used a writing technique that I learned in college to deliver the news.
Buffer -> Explanation -> Bad News -> Redirect
[Buffer] Thank you for being a long time, valued client.
[Explanation] As you’ve heard, our company has been using the H-2B temporary visa program for over 15 years, yet due to conditions outside of our control, this year many of our crew members aren’t able to join us for the busy spring season.
[Bad News] This unexpected shortage of labor has resulted in our team putting all hands on deck to complete weekly mowing and mulching, yet we predict that your mulch won’t be delivered until mid June.
[Redirect] We understand that many of you have parties or situations in which you’ll need your mulch sooner than that. We’ve partnered with a local company who is able to honor our same pricing…
When possible, err on the side of proactive communication. If you do subcontract out your work, be sure to let your clients know what they can expect. Let them know the name of the company who will be providing the work, what their trucks and uniforms look like and that you will still be their point of contact.
As a result of our communication, we celebrated 100% retention of VIP clients the year we didn’t get our H2-B guys. Remember that your clients are the REASON you’re doing the work you do! They are the biggest shareholders your company has. Let them help you move forward.
While you’re scavenging for new employees to fill the void, don’t forget to fully utilize and maximize your current employee base. You have lofty production goals to achieve and you’ll need a full team effort and push to get there.
Last but not least, your hiring mentality is the crucial to your long-term success. Ultimately you want to reduce or eliminate your dependence on H-2B.
Hiring is not a full time job it’s an all the time job.
The labor shortage is here to stay and it will always impact your strategic decisions and planning.
Look at how you schedule the services you provide and consider how can you stretch your season and keep American employees through the winter months. For us, this meant that we were shovel edging and doing spring bed cleanups in January and February as long as the ground wasn’t frozen. We explained our proactivity to our clients and kept employees engaged.
When you do this, you’ve given yourself a competitive advantage to hire the best quality of people when they are laid off in December and January. Being from the midwest, I understand this is a challenge due to weather. But, consider how you can expand your service offerings or make creative changes to your service timing so that you’re the landscaping company everyone wants to work for in your city.
Join me in my online course Recruit Like a Pro for the Green Industry where you'll learn exactly how to attract new employees to your lawn care and landscaping business.
If you didn’t get H-2B this year, use the code H2B2018 to get the course for 10% off through the end of April. Heck - even if you did get H-2B or you’re avoiding it like the plague, you’ll want this course.
Welcome! I'm Kelly Dowell, and I use technology to develop sales, marketing and recruiting solutions for lawn and landscape leaders. Feel free to follow me, share this article, visit my website, or send me a message to get in touch and make this world a smaller place!
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