Maria Candler has a college degree in parks, recreation, and tourism—not in business. But at age 22, she took “a temp job” at a small landscaping company near her Virginia home that changed her course. “My job was to answer the phone in the morning, and if need be, run out and pull weeds in the afternoon,” she says. “I just fell in love with it, the diversity of it.” At that time, the firm where she worked was small—with only 12 workers during its peak season.
Twelve years later, in 2005, Candler and three of her colleagues bought the company, and she assumed the role of president and CEO. James River Grounds Management, which irrigates, plants, mows, and otherwise tends to commercial properties throughout the state, has since tripled in size, and now has six region offices, 400 employees, and $25 million in annual revenue. Lawn and Landscape Magazine rated it the country’s 58th-largest landscaper by revenue in 2015.
It’s clear that Candler’s on-the-job management training has served her well. “Really I only have one business problem—and it’s labor,” she says. “Every other problem, we’ve figured out a way to make it work.”
For nine to 10 months of the year, Candler must add 200 seasonal laborers to her grounds crews. But finding workers has become a challenge: American workers tend not to last the season; and the arrival of migrant workers is never guaranteed, thanks to restrictive and cumbersome immigration policies.
James River Grounds Management tries its best to hire U.S.-born workers. In addition to posting job advertisements, the company runs industry-awareness and hiring events at vocational-technical high schools and colleges, and offers internships and jobs to disabled people and the post-prison population. Its robust training program lets unskilled workers advance from a $10 hourly wage to $15 an hour in several months.
“Our recruitment effort is crazy,” Candler says. “And just nothing stands out as being a viable solution for us.”
In 2015, about 3,500 U.S. workers applied for 120 open landscaping positions. At orientation, 60 percent failed to pass a drug-screening test and couldn’t be hired due to strict insurance requirements. The workers that were hired stayed an average of three weeks.
For every crewman we employ, approximately $55,000 goes back into our local economy annually. If we have no one to do the work, the revenue is lost.
“What we notice is that on the first really hot day, people drop off,” Candler says. “We probably hired something like 550 people and it was just a revolving door. We never got to full staff.”
Thankfully, Candler says, the company has secured visas to hire 80 migrant workers for the long season. It’s these workers, she says, that train the temporary U.S. workers and that are “mission critical” for the daily grounds work. “They’re the way that we’re able to grow the business. They’re the way we’re able to get it done,” she says. Of the $25 million the company now grosses, $11 million goes toward salaries, including those of 204 American-born workers; $9 million is used to buy supplies from other American companies; and $3.5 million goes to overhead.
“For every crewman we employ, approximately $55,000 goes back into our local economy annually,” she says. “If we have no one to do the work, the revenue is lost.”
Candler likes that U.S. visa programs require companies to try and hire U.S. workers, but she wishes the program weren’t arbitrarily capped at 66,000 annual visas. The process has become “a mountain of paperwork,” she says, with no guarantees. “There’s a race to the finish line, and just because you did everything right doesn’t mean you’re going to get approved on time.”