Where Can I Find a Grower? By Roger C. Styer

In my many travels visiting growers and giving talks, one ofthe most common questions I am asked is: Where can I find a grower? If Iknow of someone looking for another job, I am happy to make the referralbecause many open positions are not advertised. I could probably find fivegrowing positions for every grower I know that is looking for another job. Thebigger 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 toassess 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, properwatering skills, desire to grow good plants regardless of weather conditionsand the willingness to put in long hours when the situation demands it. In someoperations, a grower does everything in his designated areas, includingwatering, feeding, growth regulating, pesticide applications and even helping moveand ship crops. In other operations, a grower does not do the actual wateringor spraying but supervises watering people and a spray crew. These growers cancover much larger areas, making decisions on which crops need what and when.

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

Identifying the Problem(s)

The problems of recruiting, training and keeping growers canbe attributed to a number of factors. First, low pay is probably the biggestdeterrent. Many operations pay low hourly rates to people to whom they areentrusting the products their business depends on. Let’s do some mathhere: If you pay a grower $7.50 per hour, that amounts to $15,600 per year basedon a 40-hour week. If you pay $10 per hour, that totals $20,800 per year. Nowgranted, growers can make extra money during busy times with overtime, but theymay also get hours cut during slow times.

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

Which brings us to the next problem: benefits. Whatkind of benefits program do you have for your growers? Health and dentalinsurance, vacation, sick days, 401-K and yearly bonuses are a good start. Manygreenhouse operations cannot afford all of these benefits. Decide which onesare more important, and don’t skimp on them when recruiting key people.Always look to improve your benefits package as your business grows andimproves. Many times, the benefits package is as important to growers as thepay level.

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

Finding a Solution

So, what can greenhouses do to recruit, train and retainmore growers? First, better define positions. What exactly do you want growersto do, and what is their training period? What are the possible career paths inyour operation? Second, pay for education and performance. University graduateshave invested a lot of time and money in their education. Don’t insultthem with low pay, and indicate how they can progress within your operation forhigher pay and responsibilities. Put all of this in writing, and sign off onit. Too often, growers are verbally promised pay increases or moreresponsibilities, but there’s no follow-through. Third, provide learningand training opportunities. The first 30 days is crucial for developing anemployee. Do you have a training program? Do you encourage growers to attendconferences and seminars? Fourth, recruit locally and from within. Do you havesome workers who want to move up? Train them to be growers! Evaluate them aftera year to see if they will make it. Start them off with simple tasks, and keepgiving them more responsibilities as they progress. If you need to recruitoutside of your operation, look at local community colleges and vo-techschools. Many have horticultural programs with students eager to learn. Hireuniversity 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 bonusesearlier. Evaluate your growers yearly with a performance review, and give outpay increases based on merit. A profit-sharing bonus at the end of the yearwould also help. If you want growers to be more accountable, put them on aperformance bonus.

Roger C. Styer

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 [email protected]

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