Your Business: Finding and Retaining Good Employees

March 1, 2009

Steve Parisi is concerned.

Parisi, CPESC, owner of Turfmasters in St. Louis, MO, has 30 full-time employees who help provide services in sediment and erosion control and best management practice (BMP) installation and maintenance in the residential and governmental bid market sectors.

Parisi depends on the H-2B system to bring up to a dozen temporary workers from Mexico each year.

The H-2B Work Visa allows people to come to the United States temporarily, primarily for non-agricultural jobs for which US workers are in short supply. Parisi was disconcerted by the possibility that the US Congress would not extend the “returning worker” exemption.

Returning workers are those who have counted against the cap in any one of three fiscal years preceding the requested employment start date. Whether the exemption would continue had been a subject of debate in Congress.

Parisi was part of a group that flew to Washington, DC, to ask Congress to extend the exemption.

“They don’t really care about that extension, so we struggle,” he says. “I don’t know that I’ll get my guys back from Mexico. And that’s about 25% of my workforce.

“They are an integral part of our system. They are very well trained and like working here or they wouldn’t keep coming back. If Congress doesn’t extend it, I don’t know what I’m going to do next year for extra labor.”

Hiring and retaining good employees is a primary concern for erosion control specialists. The nature of the work and the type of equipment used requires a special skill set, and, sometimes, erosion control employers have to compete with other industries to get that. Seasonal work presents hiring challenges such as those experienced by Parisi.

“The best thing I’ve ever had going is H-2B,” says Parisi. “It’s a perfect fit for what we do. They have to go back in the winter; our business slows down a little bit in the winter. I typically let two or three guys at a time go back to Mexico to see their families two or three weeks during the summer in shifts so we’re not losing everybody. But I’m not very optimistic.”

In recent years, Turfmasters has moved more into sediment and erosion control in an effort to help builders and developers comply with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

“It’s created a lot of work during seasons when we normally didn’t used to work,” says Parisi. “My H-2B guys have to go back by the first week in December; then I bring them back in March or April.

“We are normally a little bit slower in the winter, so when those guys go back, it opens a void for my American employees to work more in the winter than if I had all the guys here. It’s hard to work everybody, because the work slows down some and it’s harder to work in the winter with the elements. This is a perfect fit for us.”

It’s difficult to find workers who have specific skills in erosion control, so Parisi hires workers with the potential to learn the way Turfmasters executes its work.

“This is a niche industry, so we train guys onsite,” he says. “Rarely do you find somebody who has the experience in the way we do things. I’m very particular, and we have a good reputation. I want to keep that, and I want things done right.”

Parisi recalls a recent job in which he was working with a “friendly competitor” on an erosion control blanket installation for a commercial developer.

His employees worked the erosion control part of the project while the competitor worked on a detention pond.

“The difference in the quality of work is huge,” he says. “The customers are even commenting about the difference in quality. That’s something we train for in-house. It’s a rarity that you can find people who can do what we do.”

Harry Yatsko tries to cycle his seasonal workers’ layoffs during slow times and to keep in touch with them. He is the owner of Erosion Control Specialists in Middletown, DE. The company provides full-service erosion control in a five-state area for the commercial, residential, and transportation department sectors. Yatsko has eight employees.

Erosion Control Specialists’ work increases in the summer and drops down during the winter. Yatsko has some core foremen and operators he keeps year-round. Hourly employees are laid off for a few of the less-busy months.

“We try to keep in touch with them as much as we can,” he says. “I tend to rotate them slightly to get them some hours and keep everybody around instead of doing a straight layoff, then trying to look for other people.”

In so doing, Erosion Control Specialists tries to diversify its services as much as possible to move through the seasons, but there’s little that can be done during the winter months.

In looking for employees, Yatsko uses local advertising and finds some workers through word-of-mouth from other area contractors. He says that he has spent eight years in construction management, so he knows many people who hire the same types of employees that he does, and the people he’s hired have stayed with him.

The residential housing construction slowdown has provided a wider and more experienced potential labor pool, Yatsko adds.

Yatsko has hired employees with the skill set he needs, as well as those who need training to his company’s skill and quality level.

“The skill set for landscaping and general construction work is very similar to erosion control, but there are some procedures that are very specific to the erosion control industry that they have to learn,” he says. “They’ve all picked up on it very easily.”

Sometimes the most unlikely people end up being the best employees. Such is the experience of John Gross, president of Gross Seed Company in Johnstown, NE. His company provides erosion control services, primarily for state transportation department projects, as well as for commercial sites. The company has a minimum of five employees and will pick up temporary employees for bigger projects.

Gross has had good work from young men whose pasts have involved legal trouble. “Somehow, when we bring them in-we give them a break coming out of prison-we make a personal connection with them, and give them a second chance; they are very loyal,” says Gross “These are not choir boys, but they are good-hearted and they’re good men.”

And some are the leaders in his company.

Gross has relied on employment agencies for hiring in the past. But he had to warn the agency that many of the people they were sending him had drug problems. A few years ago, Gross decided to perform drug testing on employees before hiring them.

“In two weeks’ time, we couldn’t get anyone to pass a drug test,” he says. “We had one guy tell us he wasn’t going to change his lifestyle for a job.”

Now agencies do a better job pre-screening for drugs and immigration status, Gross says.

He notes that he can get by with a crew of three to five for all but very large jobs. “I’ve found if I’m running a crew of five, we can boost up to somewhere between 15 and 20 for the additional labor needed on a short-term basis,” he says. “If the job’s going to last longer, then I’m going to need to get more supervisory-type people.”

In coordinating his workforce, Gross assigns about four temporary employees to each one of his key employees to handle one part of a job, such as erosion control, matting, or bale checks.

“I maintain my permanent employees to operate the tractors, run the equipment, and do the seeding and straw-blowing,” he adds.

Gross normally has to train employees after they’re hired, but training temporary workers has presented a problem.

“I’ve had permanent employees ask me to quit bringing the temporaries in because they are tired of training them and they don’t last,” Gross says. “We have had a hard time retaining them. We try to make it as pleasant as we can.”

Gross likes to hire people who grew up on a farm, as they are experienced in running heavy equipment. He also has hired high school students, but has found lately “the only thing they’ve run is a game system. Maybe mom and dad never had them mow the yard, take out the trash, or scrub a toilet, and then at 16, they try to step into this working world and haven’t got a clue.”

Not every company uses temporary workers. Such is the case at Oakridge Landscape in Valencia, CA, where Ron Batman is project manager. The company provides landscape and erosion control services to the commercial, residential, and government sectors, with nearly 35 employees in the erosion control division.

The size of the workforce in the erosion control division fluctuates greatly between the summer and winter months, says Batman.

“We try to augment the summer work with weed abatement, fuel modification, and grading operations,” he says. “Because of our company’s diversity, we are able to share resources. Typically, in the off-season for erosion control, there’s more work happening in the landscape construction and maintenance arenas. In the wintertime, a lot of maintenance and construction is influenced by the rain, and we can’t do work until it dries out-thus, those employees are available to augment storm response.”

Because the company doesn’t have temporary crews, and instead shares resources, cross training is necessary.

“We review with the primary crews who want to do storm response-there are some who prefer not to. When we use secondary crews, we are going to have skilled and trained superintendents and crews out on the site with them, so they’ve got the skill set. For the primary crews, we do refresher training in the fall, so if we need to put one of those crews on the site, they are prepared,” says Batman.

When the company uses workers from other divisions to augment maintenance or construction work, he notes, “they have done it before, because they’ve inherently, over the years, slipped into that work and have experience. But you’re also not sending them out to do major installation of irrigation, for example, without any experience or direction.”

In seeking employees at project management level, Oakridge looks for people with industry experience and International Erosion Control Association (IECA) certification.

“CPESC [Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control] certification is not necessary, except for a few employees,” says Batman. “The bulk of our workforce in erosion control is foremen and laborers. Recruitment is really based on them coming in to apply for a job and us training them and working them up the scale.”

With many temporary workers coming from Hispanic backgrounds, there are sometimes language and cultural barriers for company owners to overcome.

At Parisi’s company, the gap is bridged largely through four bilingual employees.

“Most of the [foreign] workers have been with me for anywhere from four to seven years, and we understand each other,” says Parisi. “We understand gestures, and they know what they do real well, so it doesn’t take much to explain what we are doing. They have the old work ethic I grew up with.”

All of Oakridge’s foremen and superintendents are bilingual, which enables them to communicate with Spanish-speaking employees.

Yatsko has some employees who speak Spanish and must rely on a few core employees who are bilingual to translate when necessary.

Training is key to developing and keeping good employees. At Turfmasters, most of the training is done in-house.

“For safety and equipment [training], we have OSHA-certified trainers,” says Parisi.

“Before any of our employees are allowed to operate equipment, they are given instruction and then tested on it,” says Batman. “If we are working with new materials, we will often get either the distributing or manufacturing representative to come in to provide the training.” Equipment training is handled in-house.

“We have to have Class A CDL [commercial driver’s license] drivers to move our trucks and equipment around, and it’s always a challenge getting and keeping those employees,” Parisi says. “Some guys will get into trouble and lose their license, and it’s not an easy license to get.”

At the in-house training, employees are shown how to drive trucks and do walk-arounds. Training is also conducted on the skid-steer loaders, grading tractors, track loaders, trenchers, box blades, and pulverizers.

Although some employees have experience when starting work for Turfmasters, others do not. The seasonal workers are adept at their jobs and don’t require more time or refresher courses, Parisi says.

Turfmasters’ employees are given a handbook upon being hired. It includes tax documentation, a non-compete agreement, and the details of the drug and alcohol program and safety program. The book’s details are augmented by occasional safety meetings.

“There was an incident the other day where somebody left a site and said their trailer was cleaned of rocks and dirt, but somehow something fell off either the truck or trailer. I got phone calls from two different people that had busted or cracked windshields, so we immediately addressed that with letters in everyone’s paycheck talking about safety and cleaning off trucks.”

At Erosion Control Specialists, some equipment training is done in-house, but the company also relies on manufacturer representatives, such as Finn Corporation’s, to train key personnel on hydroseeding machines and straw blowers.

“The training of the other personnel is done by our key people and under their watchful eye until they fully understand how to work the equipment. They show them all of the safety devices so they don’t hurt themselves. All of our loaders and wheeled vehicles are run by my foremen.”

Safety training is conducted in-house and includes a written safety program that everyone must sign. Meetings are also conducted to review client-specific jobsite requirements.

“Anytime someone new is hired, they go through an extensive program,” says Yatsko. “We make sure they understand what each individual piece of equipment does so they don’t get hurt. Thus far, I’ve had zero accidents.”

Parisi also takes advantage of training offered by vendors and the IECA. At a local IECA training session, his employees participated in a demonstration in which they did the grading and hydraulically applied erosion control.

As soon as Nebraska’s department of transportation opened up a certification program, Gross took his employees to the training, getting 100% of them certified as installers.

“We run very heavy on practical education,” Gross says. “We’ve got a lot of field experience. We work toward understanding the depth of the problem, because so often … my guys will point out that while it works on paper, our experience is that it won’t work in the field.”

Gross is emphatic about safety training, especially alert flagging.

“We worked on a project this summer that had four fatalities. Luckily, we weren’t on the job that day. As an employer, that scares me to the bone. We’ve been at this for 20 years, and I’ve never had anybody hurt, let alone killed.”

Often, when companies in a region are competing for employees, benefits make the difference with where a good employee chooses to work.

Parisi believes it’s important to retain good employees, primarily because it takes a lot of time and money to train them. He has implemented benefits such as a 401(k) plan, health insurance, and paid vacations for full-time employees.

“When you’ve put in all that effort into training them, it’s cheaper to pay them and give them a decent lifestyle versus just going through people and retraining; that just makes you pull your hair out,” he says.

Parisi goes beyond offering benefits to offering employees assistance in their personal lives.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve sent to a good friend of mine who’s a counselor to try to help them with their life problems and build them up,” he says. “They respect that. Along with being paid well and having benefits, they appreciate the human touch.”

Most employees tend to stay with Turfmasters from five to nine years.

Yatsko provides employees benefits that include health care, the use of a cell phone for business and personal calls, and a company vehicle, which can, on occasion, be used for personal reasons.

Oakridge does not provide benefits. “In California, benefits at the labor and foreman level are almost nonexistent within our industry,” Batman says. But the company does offer bonus programs based on division performance and profitability.

“Our owners have established an additional bonus program that fits the old Christmas-bonus model,” says Batman. “There is a large bonus [that employees] expect at the end of the year. Whereas some erosion control companies may not have any work for a foreman and his crew during slow periods, because of our diversity, we make sure they continue to work throughout the summer.”

While Gross does not offer benefits, he says treating employees like family engenders a lot of loyalty.

“We work very hard at getting them home on the weekends, because we spend the majority of our time on the road,” he says. “We have a pretty good Christmas party. But the golden answers seem to be different with each employee. I think the ones who get away from you, sometimes it’s because you didn’t make enough of a personal connection.”

The issue of insurance, bonding, and liability is a challenge for many employers, including Parisi. He’s spent a great deal of time and money getting his company’s financial statements in the manner that the bonding company wanted to see them.

It’s become tougher since the terrorist attacks of 2001, he says.

“Everybody’s tightened up, and based on this new economic crisis, I’m sure things aren’t going to get any easier,” he says. “We can bond about a million dollars’ worth of work right now, and I’ll generate up to $4 million in gross sales a year, so it’s not a bad bonding for us. I’d like to have more, but I’ve got to earn it.”

With respect to contractual indemnification provisions, “most of the contracts I do carry a large amount of insurance, so sometimes they ask for other general liability and workers’ compensation be increased,” says Yatsko.

“I’ve found an easier way than increasing all of those is to get an umbrella policy that will supersede everything else and cover things like auto and general liability. That eliminates individual contracts. I haven’t had any issues since then.”

Most insurance requirements are, for the most part, met by the general contractor or developer, says Batman.

“Because of what we do in the way of landscape construction and erosion control, we have to meet those requirements,” he says. “In erosion control, we will only work with people who have engineered and approved plans. We won’t do the plan, implement the work, and be the inspector for it because we don’t think it’s valid for the persons doing the work to be inspecting themselves. That somewhat limits our liability.”
About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.