2019 State of the Industry: Help!

Snow contractors may seek growth opportunities heading into Winter 2019-20, but the lack of labor could hold the industry back.

Remember the good old days … during the Recession of 2008.Today, many snow and ice professionals look back on that time fondly because the dip in the US economy provided this industry with a surplus of available labor. People were eager to work.

Fast forward a decade and the professional snow and ice industry needs people – desperately. Nearly every contractor is trying to crack the code on how they’ll get fully staffed for Winter 2019-20. They’re holding open-house events, scouring social media and offering financial incentives to secure not only frontline sidewalk crews, but plow truck drivers, loader operators, and even crew supervisors.

For seasoned snow contractors like Brent Teddy, the president of Teddy's Lawn & Landscape in Livonia, Mich., each season seems to be a bit more challenging to find enough bodies to fully populate his winter operation.

“It’s crazy,” Teddy says. “Sure, we need shovelers for sidewalk work, but we’re also trying to find good area managers, too.”

Even with a cooling of the US economy and an upward adjustment to the unemployment rate, snow contractors must realize that there’s been a fundamental change within the workforce and things may never return to how they once were, says Fred Haskett, head harvester at The Harvest Group and regular Snow Magazine contributor.

“I was talking to someone the other day who said they looked forward to the [next] recession so that they would have [an available labor pool] again,” Haskett says. “I looked them right in the eye and said: ‘Ain’t gonna happen.’

“If we don’t recognize what has happened and begin to change our ways, even if we do have a recession or [an economic] correction and unemployment goes up three to four points, that workforce isn’t coming back unless we change our ways.”

Brad Caton, founder and CEO of Invictus Professional Snow Fighters, which operates in both Vancouver and Seattle, treats attracting and retaining labor as seriously as he does sales. Dealing with the labor question is a full-time endeavor at the company, this full-time procurement approach alleviates much of the preseason stress contractors have to manage when staffing their winter crews

“If you can put in the effort than this shouldn’t be a problem,” Caton says. “The [available labor] is out there. You just need to get to them before someone else does.”

One recent trend Teddy has observed is labor looking for long-term financial commitments from snow contractors, which is forcing him to consider placing seasonal labor on the payroll as part-time employees to secure them throughout the winter.

“People are living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “And if you can’t pay them [consistently] then they’re out looking … So, you’re left considering whether to pay them a minimum salary every week in order to keep them.”

Another is competing for workers against other labor-intensive industries that pay temporary seasonal help cash “under the table.” Teddy explains a potential labor pool of laid-off seasonal workers is available, but they prefer to be paid off the books in cash to avoid interfering with their unemployment benefits.

Keeping good operators, drivers and hand laborers has become more difficult in the last few years, says Stacey Hinson, director of sales at Snow Systems in Wheeling, Ill. However, winter’s unpredictability exasperates this labor problem.

“If we have too long of a period with no snow during the winter months, [seasonal workers] lose interest and then are not available when it does snow,” she says. “We have to hope for consistent snowfalls each month to keep them on board.”

Thinking out of the box financially has helped mitigate this problem. In addition to paying a very competitive rate on time, Snow Systems pays seasonal managers a small salary – sort of a small paycheck – to be ready and available.

Financial incentives are key to Invictus’ approach to attraction and retention, as well. Caton says he aims to compensate his service providers with the highest rate possible – around 10 percent more than his competitors are paying in the market.

“This can get tricky, though, because this [compensation] mean a higher price for our customers and is reflected in our contracts” he says, adding that he’s able to ensure clients that he has the labor force necessary to fully service the contract.

So, how do you bridge this labor gap?

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