Finding qualified help can be a real challenge. While mowing or planting doesn't necessarily take a great deal of technical skill, it is hard work, and it's work that's often done under uncomfortably warm conditions. It also takes a fair amount of physical stamina and the ability to handle power tools deftly without amputating useful body parts. So what on earth would make someone take on such a demanding job when he or she could sell designer shoes at the mall or call out mystery game numbers at the bowling alley?
M-O-N-E-Y, that's what. Which is why you'll have to do better than minimum wage if you want to attract qualified workers.
"Don't fall off your chair, but part of my success in hiring employees has come from paying way past the industry standard," says Nathan Bowers, owner of Premier Lawn Services in Sykesville, Maryland. "I pay laborers $11 to $14 an hour and my foreman $17 an hour. That may seem like a lot, but I've kept my employees [a long time]. That's pretty much unheard of in this business."
In case you did fall off your chair, remember that the trade-off for shelling out the big bucks is that, like Bowers, you won't have to spend a lot of time advertising, interviewing and hiring. But you don't necessarily have to pay that much to get the same excellent results. The Occupational Outlook Handbook 2006-07 (U.S. Department of Labor) reports that the median hourly wage for landscaping and groundskeeping laborers was $9.82, which you could round up to $10 or down to $9.50. If that's a little too high for your startup budget, you could instead offer at least $2 above minimum wage since it's hard to find unskilled jobs that pay that well.
However, according to industry experts and other business owners we spoke to, $10 an hour is about the going hourly rate for employees, which, compared to the current minimum wage, looks pretty darned good. Some owners, like Steve Mager, a lawn care business owner in Minnesota who also does chemical applications, have a sliding wage scale. Steve's base wage is $10, but he pays more-around $15 an hour-to workers with certain qualifications, such as those with a spotless driving record or a pesticide certification.
When you establish your base wage, keep in mind that in service industries like lawn care, it's not unusual for workers to change jobs to nab as little as a 25-cent-per-hour pay increase. So it's a good idea to ask around to see what other service providers are paying in your area and set your base pay rate accordingly.
"The truth is, both the lawn and landscape industries are starved for employees," says Tom Delaney, director of government affairs with PLANET, a Herndon, Virginia, association serving lawn care professionals, exterior maintenance contractors, installation/design/build professionals, and interiorscapers. "But the good news is, a mowing business needs fewer employees than other green businesses like landscaping. So your chances of finding enough people are not that bad."