Education, experience key to attracting new talent

At Colorado WaterWise Symposium, stakeholders share how they’re bringing more labor to the industry
Hands-on learning is a valuable way to bring more workers to the landscaping industry. (Photo: Alisluch, Dreamstime)

Colorado employs about 22,000 people in the landscape and lawn care industry throughout the year, according to John McMahon, executive director of Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado.

McMahon spoke at the Colorado WaterWise Symposium on Tuesday, outlining the steps that ALCC has taken to support workforce development in the industry.

“Workforce, for us, is front and center, especially in today’s economy that we have here in Colorado,” he said.

He pointed out that Colorado is now 13th for states with the lowest unemployment, but only a year ago had the second lowest unemployment in the country. Multiple industries in the state are suffering from labor gaps, he acknowledged. However, Colorado has the fifth highest per capita use of landscaping and groundskeepers, he said.

Consequently, Colorado is the second highest user of H-2B labor and the highest per capita, McMahon said.

[Related: What happened to the H-2B program in 2018: Landscapes 2018]

“If we don’t get those … seasonal visas, it has a significant impact,” he said. Some of his member companies have had to give away as much as $250,000 or $500,000 in work because they couldn’t find the labor to take on those jobs, McMahon said.

To try to overcome these challenges, ALCC launched its Landscape Careers Pathways program in 2016. “It’s a career technical education program for high school students for job-ready, basic, hands-on” training, McMahon said. ALCC partners with the community college system in Colorado to provide this training.

In addition to providing training to students to create a pipeline of potential workers, ALCC also provides a minimum of one training event per year for teachers, in addition to materials and other resources.

Student engagement efforts include 40-hour and 20-hour internships, high school horticulture activities, and connecting schools with companies in the industry to share workers success stories and career paths.

[Related: Understanding green roofs and water sustainability]

Red Rocks Community College launched a Bachelor of Applied Science degree for water quality management technology in 2015. Summer Waters, director of the water quality management program at Red Rocks Community College, noted at the session that many of the students in the program are working professionals and may only take one class per semester. Classes start in the evening and include a mix of in-person and online courses. Professors are also working in the industry so they can share real-world experience with students.

Experiential learning is fundamental to the program, she explained. Students have access to multiple laboratories to expose them to the work they will be doing in the field, including a chemistry lab and a distribution systems lab. The lab includes a leak detection field and a confined space training area where instructors can observe students to make sure they’re following safety protocols.

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