There is little question that labor pools have tightened significantly over the last five years. Present limits, inherent costs, and bureaucratic delays have discouraged most companies from using guestworker programs and caused others to all but abandon them.
All labor-intensive industries are experiencing similar challenges, but horticulture’s present labor requirements, working conditions, and pay scale make us particularly vulnerable. Many growers and landscapers have stories about new hires who simply don’t make it through the first day.
Our industry has real work to be done, and most people just don’t want to do it. One employer recently bragged about having a pretty good hiring week. They were able to add five workers, which would have been great, had they not lost seven in the same period.
There are things that we can do to make commercial growing operations more attractive to present and future workforces. We can eliminate some of the stoop-labor that folks just won’t do. Plant-moving fork-lifts in combination with spacing robots and pot-spacing buffer-belt tables can have a huge impact. It is much easier to hire and retain workers to drive forklifts around the nursery or supervise robots, when compared to the arduous manual work that is required without these tools.
Some growers are taking a fresh look at deploying fixed or movable conveyors to minimize steps that require carrying of product. Hand forks are an inexpensive tool that can be used for spacing or plant carrying that minimize worker bending and back strain.
Steps to Becoming More Efficient
Overall labor requirements can also be reduced with highly efficient production lines. The days of piecing together a production line are over. Today’s lines are built to eliminate useless touches at transition points by allowing any pot to transfer from one conveyor to another without tipping over. Predetermined recipes for component speeds can be recorded for future use to ensure that the most economical configuration is being used on each product type to maximize the total piece per hour/per person rate. We can no longer afford to have a person stand at a conveyor belt all day, to brush a little soil off of every pot, or make sure baskets don’t tip over after they exit a flat filler or transition into a watering tunnel.
I can’t believe how many dibblers are being purchased. It’s become critical to dibble pots in a manner that helps inexperienced workers place plants in the right place and depth to achieve quality results.
Transplanters are also in focus again. Planters from 15 years ago were optimized to plant packs, but they weren’t made to rapidly change plug sizes or container configuration. Consequently, growers who might have planted 75% of their crop with older machines now pass product through the machine and hand-plant the majority of their production. New machines switch quickly from one format to another, and growers can easily get back to the majority of their product running on highly efficient planting automation.
There’s so much more to be discussed about maximizing available labor, but today’s growers must also be keenly aware that they are competing for labor, as well as for customers. Dignity of work and providing a desirable work environment are essential. Workers have many choices today, and they will choose clean, well-lit, and comfortable facilities over those that are leftovers from an era gone by.
Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at present work areas to evaluate if they attract or deter the folks we really need. While installing a cuttings production line in a refurbished production building, one of our clients outfitted all planters in white lab coats. The same folks who really disliked sticking cuttings over benches in the hot, humid greenhouse now compete for who gets to work in the lab. It’s the same job, but this clever operator changed the conditions, professionalized the work, and made it highly desirable.
Perhaps you can do the same!