Where Can I Find a Grower?

August 22, 2002 - 08:52

Solving the labor crunch in floriculture.

In my many travels visiting growers and giving talks, one of
the most common questions I am asked is: Where can I find a grower? If I
know of someone looking for another job, I am happy to make the referral
because many open positions are not advertised. I could probably find five
growing positions for every grower I know that is looking for another job. The
bigger questions really are: Why are growers looking for another job,
and where can we find more growers?

Defining the Need

Before we can answer those questions, we really need to
assess the current state of our industry. Growers need a certain set of skills,
such as a good eye for details, ability to learn new techniques, proper
watering skills, desire to grow good plants regardless of weather conditions
and the willingness to put in long hours when the situation demands it. In some
operations, a grower does everything in his designated areas, including
watering, feeding, growth regulating, pesticide applications and even helping move
and ship crops. In other operations, a grower does not do the actual watering
or spraying but supervises watering people and a spray crew. These growers can
cover much larger areas, making decisions on which crops need what and when.

The number of growers is not increasing as rapidly as the
greenhouse acreage is in the United States. In addition, more growers tend to
leave large operations to set up their own small operations where they can be
in charge of their own destiny. We are not seeing many young people coming out
of universities looking for grower jobs. They would rather work in landscape or
turf management. Speaking of management, university graduates want to be more
involved in management rather than all of the hands-on, dirty work that a section
grower needs to do, or at least be able to move into those positions within a
limited time-frame of accepting a position.

Identifying the Problem(s)

The problems of recruiting, training and keeping growers can
be attributed to a number of factors. First, low pay is probably the biggest
deterrent. Many operations pay low hourly rates to people to whom they are
entrusting the products their business depends on. Let's do some math
here: If you pay a grower $7.50 per hour, that amounts to $15,600 per year based
on a 40-hour week. If you pay $10 per hour, that totals $20,800 per year. Now
granted, growers can make extra money during busy times with overtime, but they
may also get hours cut during slow times.

So, what is the poverty line in this country? Do you pay
overtime for anything over 40 hours? How much is a grower really worth to your
operation? How much time was spent training that grower? Once you do get people
in and train them to be growers, do you have a set pay increase schedule that
can move them up as they demonstrate proficiency and responsibility? And
don't think that by putting growers on salary you have solved this
problem! Growers on salary are considered slave labor, expected to put in long
hours without getting compensated like an hourly grower would.

Which brings us to the next problem: benefits. What
kind of benefits program do you have for your growers? Health and dental
insurance, vacation, sick days, 401-K and yearly bonuses are a good start. Many
greenhouse operations cannot afford all of these benefits. Decide which ones
are more important, and don't skimp on them when recruiting key people.
Always look to improve your benefits package as your business grows and
improves. Many times, the benefits package is as important to growers as the
pay level.

One problem that I hear from different growers is the lack
of opportunities to learn. Once you hire growers, do you have a program in
place to improve their skill set, giving them more responsibilities and the
power to make decisions to carry out those responsibilities? When you hire
university graduates, you really need to look at this area. Do not assume that
university graduates know everything; require all growers to continue learning
and provide them the opportunities to do so.

Finding a Solution

So, what can greenhouses do to recruit, train and retain
more growers? First, better define positions. What exactly do you want growers
to do, and what is their training period? What are the possible career paths in
your operation? Second, pay for education and performance. University graduates
have invested a lot of time and money in their education. Don't insult
them with low pay, and indicate how they can progress within your operation for
higher pay and responsibilities. Put all of this in writing, and sign off on
it. Too often, growers are verbally promised pay increases or more
responsibilities, but there's no follow-through. Third, provide learning
and training opportunities. The first 30 days is crucial for developing an
employee. Do you have a training program? Do you encourage growers to attend
conferences and seminars? Fourth, recruit locally and from within. Do you have
some workers who want to move up? Train them to be growers! Evaluate them after
a year to see if they will make it. Start them off with simple tasks, and keep
giving them more responsibilities as they progress. If you need to recruit
outside of your operation, look at local community colleges and vo-tech
schools. Many have horticultural programs with students eager to learn. Hire
university graduates if you want people for higher positions in the future,
such as head growers, production managers or sales positions.

And finally, train and retain! I mentioned yearly bonuses
earlier. Evaluate your growers yearly with a performance review, and give out
pay increases based on merit. A profit-sharing bonus at the end of the year
would also help. If you want growers to be more accountable, put them on a
performance bonus.

About The Author

Dr. Roger C. Styer is President, Styer's Horticultural Consulting, Inc., Batavia, Ill., and can be reached by phone at (630) 208-0542, fax at (630) 208-0966 or E-mail at carleton@voyager.net.

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