How to Source New Labor for Your Nursery Operation

job interview greeting

No experience needed? Casting a wider net into the labor pool might be necessary to fill job openings at your nursery.

Recently, I walked into a landscape supply store, where there were three other companies’ managers or owners standing around waiting to be helped. As I listened to their conversation, a few snippets of what was said stood out. “We have too much work and no people.” “Yes, this generation doesn’t want to work.” “I don’t have anyone even applying.” This is a reality for much of the industry, and it’s a problem that our department used to struggle with, but fortunately, it has mostly been solved.
The way I see the hiring process right now is that the green industry has three options. The first option is to fight each other over the limited number of students coming out of school. This isn’t a terrible option, but if the candidate pool is incredibly small for the position, how are you deciding who fits your company the best?


The second option is to try to steal employees from competitors. Poaching other people’s employees doesn’t make much sense either. You lose your reputation in the industry, and other companies that wouldn’t have poached from you in the past now have no issues with doing it in return. When you get a bad reputation, it is hard to change that view.

There’s a Better Way
That leaves us with the final option. Train people with no experience in the green industry. This now seems like the best option for long-term planning. There is a near limitless pool of employees to select from, but it takes more time to hire and train. This is the option we have implemented at Willoway Nurseries, and we have achieved great success.

Who are we focused on attracting? The short answer is people who have entered the job market but have been unable to start a career. The reality for much of the current generation is that while unemployment is low, it is high for younger workers. Close to half of younger workers are in the service or retail industries. There is a large group of younger people who are underemployed and looking for a career. Market your company to these recent additions to the job market.

What Do You Bring to the Table?
Stop reading for a moment and think about what makes your company special. The new employees are offering to help your business. What are you offering them that the retail or service industries can’t offer? What can we offer these next great employees to entice them to work for our businesses?
The one thing I think everyone in the green industry can offer is training. Can someone learn from you to make a career in the green industry? Training is something fast food, coffee shops, and retailers are not doing, or cannot do. There are great employees out there who are stuck under-employed after graduating. Let’s get them in this industry.

Three Steps to Help You Rethink Your Job Pitch
Start attracting new employees by first updating your job posting. My first attempt at writing one, I only attracted six applicants. What I ended up doing was reaching out to a friend who was a recruiter at a Top 500 company. After taking her advice, I had around 85 potential applicants. Here are some of the pointers she gave me in writing a help-wanted ad.

1. Be honest in the ad. Don’t paint an unrealistic idea of what you think the applicant is looking for. You don’t want the applicant to fall in love with your ad but not the job. If you work in a high-stress environment, say so. You want to attract people who have the right skill set for your job.
2. Post the hiring pay. You want to convey that a competitive salary is not minimum wage. This lets applicants instantly know if they can take a risk and leave their current jobs. I also like to talk about the training the new employee
will receive. I am training them to fulfill X position, which takes around X years to learn.
3. Use requirements to filter applicants, but only list the most necessary ones. For every requirement listed, you will cut the number of applicants by about half. So, if you start with 200 potential applicants, after five requirements you will only have six people who still want to apply. I only use two requirements: Applicants need to be able to work outside in all weather conditions, and applicants must be willing to work in a drug-free workplace.

I leave off the experience-needed section. I am making a commitment to train someone willing to learn. Every business does things different, so even people with experience will need to be retrained. Why leave out good employees just because they have not entered the industry yet?

Get Real With Your Interview
Interviews at our company have become more important now that the candidates applying have no green-industry experience. The new candidates should have all the necessary soft skills to make them successful. Every question you ask the candidate should have a clear goal of determining if this person has the right skills to succeed at your company. Do not make any concession on the candidate’s skills, saying they are a close enough fit.

I start interviews with a mix of standard interview questions such as “Tell me about yourself” and “What’s your biggest weakness?” The only question I am trying to answer is if the applicant is prepared for the interview. The answers should have been rehearsed beforehand, and it’s a red flag if they can’t answer them.

We then transition into me talking about the company and the job. I honestly do not say one good thing about our company here. I am not trying to sell someone on the job; I am trying to paint a realistic picture for someone outside the industry of what the job entails. I don’t exaggerate about the bad, but I do tell them what they can expect. I explain why I am doing that, because some of us love what we do, but it isn’t for everyone. We want this job to be a good fit for them, and the candidate to be a good fit for us.

After this, the interview gets more relaxed. We talk about hobbies, what they like to do for fun, their pets, or if they like to travel. I am trying to get them out of interview mode and beyond pre-practiced answers. I want to see their personality and make sure they will fit in with their co-workers and our company culture.

Next, I ask about old jobs and bosses. More times than not, I will get real answers about how the applicant is at work. Do they need a lot of direction? Can they operate with or without being constantly managed?

I wrap up the interview with a question they can’t possibly prepare for: “Every day we deal with questions we do not have answers for. If you were given the job to paint the moon blue, how many gallons of paint would you need?” I let them take their time to think about the answer. How they respond gives you a look into how their mind works. How do they figure out how much paint to use? Do they talk about costs of doing this project? Do they talk about needing research of moon paint absorption?

You can see if they are more operationally minded or scientifically minded. You can see if they put some thought into answering the question or blow off the question as stupid. You can see how they respond to the stress of not knowing the answer. I couldn’t care less about the real answer or if they can figure it out; I just want to see if they try.

Change Your Training Mindset
The number one reason people leave a job is lack of opportunity. By putting a focus on training, you can address this issue. Hiring outside the industry and training people for a job they would not have received without your training will keep new hires engaged. Your company needs to change the way it trains new employees. No longer can your training practices be a baptism by fire, or an exercise in only the toughest survive. Training needs to be a dedicated effort from not only yourself, but from other managers, supervisors, and the new employee’s co-workers. Failures from the new employee must be seen as an opportunity for training.

The days of employees coming to you, begging for a job, are over. We must now market ourselves to the career-focused recent graduates who are lost on which path to take. This solves problems for both ourselves and for them, giving these lost job seekers a path to build a career, learn new skills, and become active in the industry. Every problem our businesses face has an answer. We just need to change the way we think to solve them.