Developing a Training Program for Landscapers

Developing a training program for landscapers takes some planning and organization, but will ultimately pay off in the form of better employee retention.

As the labor shortage continues to wage on, many landscaping companies are struggling to find people with landscaping experience and instead finding it easier to hire for culture fit and then train them on "everything else."

Putting together a training program (and conducting it every time you hire new people) may be a time-consuming process, but it'll pay dividends in the long run.

In this article (part 1 of 2) we cover ways to streamline your training program, topics to cover in training programs for landscaping crews, incorporating learning management software, and striking a balance between hiring for culture fit vs. technical skills.

How to Lighten the Load

Comprehensive new employee training is a very hands-on, time-consuming process, so we asked our partners in the green industry what can be done to minimize that burden on the company’s resources while still providing a high quality training program.

Utilizing Existing Resources

Phil Harwood (of recommends you start by utilizing existing training programs (like the industry-specific ones they offer) which can save time in developing curriculum, and reduce the burden on leadership.

“These programs already exist in our industry and provide consistency and quality for every new hire and returning team member,” he said. “Do your research and select which ones are the best fit for you. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel.”

Documentation and Preparation

Michael Maggiotto Jr PHR, SHRM-SCP (of BEST Human Capital & Advisory Group) emphasizes the importance of documentation and preparation. He suggests outlining training objectives, methods, and success criteria to ensure consistency and effectiveness across all training.

Robert Clinkenbeard (of Wilson 360) concurs, suggesting a balanced onboarding plan that covers both general topics as well as role-specific goals around safety, core values expectations, timesheets, attendance/time off, care of equipment and other assets, quality of work and following SOPs.

For implementation of the program, Maggiotto recommends the “See one, do one, teach one” method often ascribed to doctors:

“The trainer should show what the learning in action looks like, then provide the learner an opportunity to perform while being observed. Lastly, the trainer should observe the learner teaching someone else, even if the other being taught already knows it. This final step is about ensuring the learner understands underlying reasons for doing things the way they were taught. Helping others understand the ‘why’ is critical for them to absorb and retain the knowledge or skill, and build the capabilities to meet performance expectations.”

Incorporating Video Technology

Training videos should be a key component of all training and onboarding, as they provide many benefits including:

  • Consistency in the quality of the training because it’s taught the same way, every time
  • Reduced need for 1-on-1 training makes better use of the trainer’s time
  • Convenience for the learner, as it allows them to train when it best fits their schedule, or when the trainer is unavailable for 1-on-1 instruction

Levi Jett (of Jett Facility Consultants) advises that video training is best used with "information only" topics that don’t require hands-on practice, or topics that don’t typically prompt a lot of Q&A that would require a live instructor.

Don’t let your lack of video production skills scare you away from utilizing this approach, either. Jett points out that widespread video technology tools and software now allow companies to create high quality training videos with ease, and often for free. It doesn’t have to be a highly produced, multi-camera recording, either. You can literally just record a live training on your phone and then replay it for future employees.

And while outsourcing is always an option if you’re concerned about in-house production, Jud Griggs (of Harvest Group Landscape Consulting) cautions against relying too heavily on company training videos that have been produced by someone else.

“There are some national companies that offer videotaped training,” he said, “but much of it is generalized. As you move from region to region and company to company, training needs to be more specialized. You can hire a local videographer, or train someone in your company to do this.”

Partnering with Experienced Employees

The buddy system is a tried and true approach for assimilating new employees that pairs an experienced employee with a new hire. More than anything, this approach helps the new hire assimilate into the culture and develop relationships quickly, which are essential components of employee retention.

“Training often falls to a few key employees,” said Steve Steele (of Wilson 360). “Lessen their load by partnering new employees with a buddy that can assist them with everything from process and procedure to proper equipment use and work standards.”

Lauren Howell (of Harvest Group Landscape Consulting) said she’s had success by being very intentional about pairing new employees with experienced ones.

“While it can be seen as a burden by the leaders with the gift of good training, I always let them know ahead of time that I've noticed their skill and intend to make use of it to grow our team,” she advises. “I want them to know it's not a punishment, but a compliment, and often I'm able to financially compensate those ‘trainers’ who produce well-trained new employees.”

Training Topics for Landscaping Crew Members & Leaders

Next, we asked about training topics—both for new crew members as well as new crew leaders. The curriculum for each should be highly specific to their role, in addition to a robust general training on the company’s norms and expectations.

General Company Onboarding

General company onboarding is highly specific to your organization and covers things like company history, culture, reporting structure, decision trees, and rules (both written and unwritten) as well as mission, vision, and core values.

Katie Magoon (of People Solutions Center) adds that an onboarding process is most effective “when you have a standard schedule for all new hires.” She recommends creating a detailed checklist (like the one below) to ensure you don't have a flurry of activity or confusion for those participating in the process.

→ See an example of an onboarding outline on the BEST Human Capital & Advisory Group website from their series on employee retention.

Crew Member Training

Because every crew is different (e.g. greenhouse, maintenance, design and build) their technical and on-the-job training will vary according to their specialization, equipment and machinery. Michael Maggiotto explains:

"Every crew is different. In the green industry, we have crews in greenhouses, open fields, warehousing, and even manufacturing. Some are growing, mixing fertilizers or growing medium, or monitoring hydroponic bulb rotations. There are heavy and light machinery, conveyor systems, and mixer machines in an assembly line system. The variety of "crews" is nearly endless. Thus, what topics should be included on a training checklists will always be both business and crew specific."

What doesn’t vary, however, is the emphasis that should be placed on safety—which should be relentlessly discussed and trained on with regular, ongoing consistency.

“When complacency sets in by assuming all know and understand what and how to be safe," said Michael, "That is when safety incidents tend to occur."

Crew Leader Training

For landscaping crew leaders, Phil Harwood cites the following five roles that are essential to be trained in:

  1. A working member of the crew where they set the standard for the crew's work
  2. Driving the truck and trailer, which requires asset management, time reporting, and documentation of work completed
  3. Direct supervisors of the crew, making them responsible for job hours, material usage, quality, etc.
  4. Trainers who provide on-the-job training to new crew members
  5. Leaders who are responsible for engagement and growth of their crew members

→ Related Reading from the NALP: Focus on Safety Training When Onboarding

Training Portals

Robert Clinkenbeard points to Greenius as a good starting point for getting comfortable with using learning management software (LMS) while Trainual, he says, "is a good resource for customizing your own training program and monitoring progress or engagement." In an article on training programs, Russel Landscape Group told the NALP they use Litmos.

“With the quality of phone cameras and video that everyone has, this is a great way to get started with short training videos that can be shared internally,” said Clinkenbeard. is another LMS built just for the green industry. Co-Owner Phil Harwood told us that the companies they see succeeding with learning management software have dedicated a person to champion program adoption and have integrated completion of training into compensation and reward programs.

“Learning management software is more than just a training delivery tool,” said Michael Maggiotto. “The data recorded from the LMS can be cross-referenced by your HRIS. Reports reflecting training completion rates, program success rates, and even performance improvement after training can all be created. These reports inform management on the success of training programs, validate completion for state compliance, and can inform business decisions around personnel changes or training program updates that may be needed.

“LMS programs do not have to be overly complex nor costly,” he continued. “Neither do HRISs or ERPs. For small businesses, these can be outsourced to 3rd party Administrative Services Organizations (ASOs) which can reduce overall costs by consolidating HRIS, LMS, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), and Payroll systems into one software solution at a much more reasonable price than buying and owning separate solutions.”

Hiring for Culture Fit vs. Technical Skills

You’ve probably heard the old adage to hire for cultural fit because you can train for “everything else.” Next, we asked our partners if that advice passes muster, or if it’s just a copout. And while their replies were nuanced with some caveats, they seem to generally agree with the notion:

“Hire for culture fit? Yes, but... know what you are willing and not willing to train a candidate on. Be open to training them on a broader range of company, product, and industry knowledge, but assess through the hiring process their alignment to culture through behavior traits, competencies, and skills.”

— Michael Maggiotto Jr, PHR, SHRM-SCP, BEST Human Capital & Advisory Group

Character fit and culture fit always supersedes everything else. Adding someone that could be toxic to your team might cause problems that take way longer to solve than spending a little extra time training someone without all the proper qualifications.

— Levi Jett, Jett Facility Consultants LLC

Generally speaking, culture fit is the most important factor companies should consider when hiring. That said, there does need to be a set of competencies that candidates possess, and a willingness to learn. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and it is critical to match these up to the individual person and position.

— Darrin Braun, Beyond The Software

Oftentimes, the managers I work with are set on finding someone "with experience" for their field crews, but often these experienced employees come with a lot of baggage. I find that selecting candidates that are responsive to my communication, can express themselves clearly, and show a willingness to learn are often easier to bring into the team and acclimate more quickly. Someone with training and experience from other companies may not do things in quite the same fashion as we'd like them to, their idea of quality and detail is not always on target, and many times re-training them is a challenge if they are set in their ways and determined that their way is the right way.

— Lauren Howell, Harvest Group Landscape Consulting

While cultural fit is key, aptitude and desire are equally important when it comes to building a strong team and culture. A person that would fit in great with the team but who has no desire or ability to do the required job will quickly become a cultural problem, no matter how nice or culturally compatible they may be.

— Steve Steele, Wilson 360

I have always said, give me a person that has a great work ethic, a positive attitude and willingness to learn, I can teach them the technical aspects of landscaping.

— Jud Griggs, Harvest Group Landscape Consulting

There is a fine balance between hiring for cultural fit and hiring for skills alone. While there are some skills and competencies that are "trainable", that is not true for all competencies. Spending time in advance of the recruitment process to define the competencies needed for the role and determining what is "trainable" is the real key to success. This information, in conjunction with behavioral based interview questions, ensures that you make high quality hiring decisions. This approach also ensures that our unconscious biases don't filter our perceptions of cultural fit.

— Katie Magoon, People Solutions Center

I agree 100% with cultural fit first, as the company culture should be the number one priority along with taking care of the client. If you hire the right people culturally, inevitably this will lead to them providing a quality service to clients. Training for their role can be successfully completed through designated training internally or outsourced to local or regional experts.

— Robert Clinkenbeard, Wilson360

In part two, we share a bunch of quick tips for organizing a memorable and effective training event for your landscaping crews.

Read Now →


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