These strategies can help employers reduce worker turnover and increase productivity
Labor shortages have been a problem for the nursery industry long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
But then came the ensuing lockdown and a widely reported shift in employee mindset about the workplace. Dubbed the Great Resignation, a mass worker exodus last year yielded more than 47 million people quitting their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Compounding previous problems, it became that much harder to fill positions. The experience of the nursery industry is borne out by the work world overall. Research firm Gartner summarizes the issues facing employers in their hiring pursuits:
- 50–75% higher turnover than previously experienced.
- 18% longer time to fill a role than before the pandemic.
- Approximately 50% of prospective candidates juggling two or more offers at the same time.
- A 6% increase annually of skills required to do a single job.
In this environment, employee retention programs are just as important as recruitment, and have become a cornerstone of business longevity. Here we look at strategies to retain talent.
Provide professional, career development opportunities
Workplace research studies demonstrate employees are more engaged when they are learning new skills, whereas disengagement leads to higher turnover. Defined career development opportunities foster employee engagement and satisfaction by supporting and embedding learning and growth on the job.
For new hires, understanding their aspirations from the start and creating a program for them to transition into a new role over time demonstrates company commitment to their future.
“If we get a young person, we want to keep them and get them as excited as we can,” said Terri Cook, senior vice president of human resources, Everde Growers, a Texas-based nursery company with additional farms in Oregon, California and Florida.
Instituting a mentorship program can be used to support all employees in their career development path. Mentorship programs focus employee attention on the attainment of goals and continually build their future at a company.
“[During employee reviews] we outline the mentorship and make sure they know where they are headed and where potentially they can go,” said Jonathan Pedersen, CEO and president of Monrovia Nursery Co., a California-based grower with additional locations in Oregon, Georgia and Connecticut.
A carefully developed training program can help employees identify opportunities for moving into different roles and areas of production, sales, IT, human resources and more.
“There is no position — if you’ve got the drive and passion — you cannot have at this company,” Pedersen said.
Not all roles can be set on a management pathway, but companies can still increase retention and morale by providing continual learning opportunities and training for personal and professional development.
Invest in technologies
Many nurseries are facing the challenge of filling general labor positions by investing in technology. Replacing menial and hard labor tasks with automation is an investment in productivity and efficiency, but also in supporting, and retaining, the existing labor force.
“We are spending a lot of time looking at every process so people want to stay, and they are not doing repetitive lifting tasks all day,” Pedersen said. “We are trying to eliminate bending, lifting and repetitive motions, and replacing them with automation where we can, without decreasing the number of existing employees.”
Use of technology is also a big part of staying current, especially when attracting millennials, according to Pamela Evans, human resources manager at the J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. nursery (JFS), a tree grower with 3,000 acres of growing space at three Oregon locations. Last year, supervisors at JFS got iPads to take into the fields to update inventory — “a valuable tool for managers and employees” — and a worthy customizing challenge for the programmer.
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are software tools that automate business processes. They also manage day-to-day business activities such as project management, production, sales and human resources. Nurseries investing in these can establish standardized and best practices while also providing a professional development opportunity for
Everde uses the technology for project planning and management to make the job easier and share information company-wide. According to Cook, a communication portal allows everyone to contribute their ideas for doing tasks or making projects better. The system shows employees the value of their input and expertise.
At Monrovia, training videos are provided in both English and Spanish, putting everyone on the same platform.
“It streamlines the process of learning, employees’ understanding of the job requirements, and also makes sure they are doing the job in a safe and appropriate way,” Petersen said. “For a craftsman, it makes them feel they know what needs to be done, decreases uncertainty, and shortens that learning curve. That adds to a feeling of being valued.”
A culture of recognition
Employee recognition can come in many forms, small and large, privately and publicly. And apparently, it benefits everyone. A large-scale study undertaken by Workhuman and Gallup in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland showed profound results when acknowledgement, praise and recognition were part of workplace culture: Employees were engaged and connected, and businesses experienced cost savings with lower turnover. Yet, recognition is something that is often overlooked.
At JFS, Evans pointed to a bonus program for hitting company goals that is linked to the company’s performance overall, rather than individual performance. It was especially well-received by employees.
“We have a lot of employees who have been here 10, 20 and 30 years. They take pride in their role here,” Evans said. A cash bonus, rather than providing additional benefits, was highly regarded. Additional benefits don’t always apply to all employees; not everyone needs them. But cash allows individuals to use the money however they choose.
At Monrovia, they have a craftsman of distinction award, where the individual is recognized in front of their peers, and they get additional days off and a $1,000 gift card.
Recognition can be creative and a way to create friendly work conditions. There can be annual employee/family picnics, occasional parties for holidays, or public acknowledgement of birthdays and work anniversaries. “We recognize [employees] with gift cards, caps, and other giveaways in front of their peers on the farm,” Evans said.
Developing a culture of recognition and camaraderie creates a sense of belonging. It’s a human-centered approach that many studies show promotes friendly work conditions that foster individual investment.
Evans has been in HR for more than 30 years. After all that time, she said the story remains the same: Communication between employees and management is key to employee satisfaction. That holds true no matter the issue, from job execution to coworker conflicts to understanding and receiving guidance on benefits.
“A lot of people leave not because of the money, but because they don’t feel they are being heard,” Evans said. It all comes down to finding ways to institute open communications, and that includes support for managers and supervisors to deal with employee situations.
“Culturally, we make sure that our employees, new or otherwise, have a voice and we listen to what they have to say,” said Mike Pezzillo, CEO and vice president at Eason Horticultural Resources (Covington, Kentucky), a consultant and sales agent to retail garden center growers, wholesale greenhouse growers, nurserymen, and landscapers. “We address their challenges and internal issues.”
That can happen in a variety of ways: Using technology to facilitate communications, collect feedback and post open positions internally when jobs are ready to be posted externally; creating opportunities for regular one-on-one, department and company-wide meetings; and ensuring job descriptions, expectations and instructions are clear and easily available.
At JFS, Evans works with a management assistant, Pedro Torres, who has been with the company for more than 18 years. He is a liaison, conducting weekly farm visits at all locations, walking the fields, talking with employees, recognizing individual employees for their work anniversaries and picking up any concerns or questions. “Those one-on-ones provide valuable information,” Evans said. “You’re not always going to get that in a group meeting.”
Coaching and communication
After you set expectations and create a work path for new hires or in review sessions for existing employees, consistent communication and transparency on job performance is good management practice, according to Cook. Especially for new and younger employees, performance communications and check-ins early, and continuously, allow for more moments where managers and employees work together toward improvement.
“People want to know how they are doing, where they stand, with no surprises,” he said. “I have a 23-year-old employee, and she wants to know what the plan is, and if she is doing it right.” She wants to know how she fits in with the team, and if she is doing what’s needed.
Gone are the days where people are hired, put their nose down, and come up only for an annual evaluation. They want to be part of the conversation and involved in their own learning.
“There is the mantra of rowing the boat together in the right direction, and if you are waiting for once a year to have those conversations, it is too late,” Cook said.
Outside of more frequent formal reviews, companies can build in regular informal interactions with employees. As with customers, plan touchpoints to specifically reflect on goals, recognition, areas for improvement, and learning opportunities.
“We want to make sure we are communicating the wants and needs of the position before someone becomes so frustrated that they walk out the door,” Cook said.
No conversation about employee retention is complete without talking about compensation. If the candidate pool is limited, retention may require paying people more money, but there are non-salary alternatives to compensation that can bolster satisfaction. For example:
- For exempt employees, comp time for working weekends and nights is by no means required, but it still can be provided as a perk.
- For positions where technology can create connections to the home office, working from home at times can be a lifestyle benefit. Hiring completely remote workers can perhaps be a benefit for both employers and employees.
- Flexible start and stop times, without tapping paid time off (PTO), for people with young children or elderly parents can ease work schedules.
Just as with recruitment, retention of existing employees is based on reputation and an overall sense of the company. When employees feel valued, safe, and connected to company culture and part of an innovative team — as well as earning good benefits and pay — it adds up to an engaged and happy staff.
When an investment is made, with time and financial resources devoted to their well-being, it fosters loyalty and longevity.