Well-trained employees are valuable to their current employer. They’re also very attractive to competitors. Scott Fullerton knows that.
He knows that the time and money he invests in training employees could eventually mean a payoff for someone else, and in fact, he’s experienced it more than once. But it’s a risk he’s willing to take, because he also knows that an educated employee upgrades a company in every way.
After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in horticulture, Fullerton began his career with the largest landscape company in the country, followed by a job with a smaller local company. Though both companies were successful, neither company turned a spotlight on professional development. When he founded Kenvil, New Jersey-based Fullerton Grounds Maintenance in 1994, Fullerton says he spent little time at first thinking about or implementing employee development, as his main focus as a new business owner was growing his client list, his service offerings and a team of dedicated employees.
What started as a grounds maintenance company has grown steadily over the past 26 years, from what Fullerton calls a mom and pop shop to a corporate enterprise. The company now provides complete commercial and residential grounds maintenance, landscape, urban and environmental design services, as well as commercial snow removal, light excavating and masonry services. Today, FGM has 80 year-round employees, and many of them have been with the company since its inception. During peak season, Fullerton’s staff spikes to 180 employees.
“The expansion of services is a product of customers asking for it,” Fullerton says. “They really begin to trust you and if you can do it, they would rather work with one vendor than many. We grew in diversity and volume in those businesses.”
As FGM steadily grew with its loyal base of employees, Fullerton says he enjoyed showing his appreciation for his employees by taking them on fishing trips and picnics, getting to know each other better over a beer and some laughs. In fact, he says those times were some of his favorite memories from the early years. When a few employees began to inquire about taking a course or two at the local college, he says he was happy to cover the tuition.
“They wanted to improve themselves, so to pay for a college course for them seemed like a natural benefit,” Fullerton says. “They get out there for 8, 10, 12 hours a day to work as hard as they do. It’s hard to sit in an ivory tower and think about them doing that every day. It was something I wanted to do for people who wanted to improve themselves. For $250, if they’re going to learn about plants to work here, it sounded like a no-brainer to me.”
With a growing business and happy employees, Fullerton says providing more robust continuing education and professional development options still wasn’t in the front of his mind.
“Even in my first 10 years of business, I probably did very little of it,” he says. “It’s very hard when you’re barely keeping your head above water. Safety and training just look like an expense. If I have one or two guys, am I going to pull them from the field for training?” Slowly, Fullerton says, the benefits of a well-trained workforce started to resonate. He began to realize that if an employee could work without damaging a truck or without a piece of equipment rolling over his foot, he could mow faster, more efficiently and without injury.
“For every hour you put into it, you’re saving an hour of efficiency and downtime,” Fullerton says. “When someone gets injured on a job, it kills you. When you invest in training, all of a sudden, what you’re paying in insurance goes down, your customers are happy and your employees are happy. Somewhere along the line it dawned on me, this is a real benefit.”
FGM has always presented weekly Toolbox Talks, generally focused on safety, to managers, who then relay that information back to their crews. Crews also get frequent reminders of safety basics like wearing goggles, using ear plugs and being aware while driving. About eight years ago, FGM rolled out “rodeos,” large-scale, day-long employee trainings covering a variety of topics.
“We take an entire day off and go out to one of our corporate sites where we set up 10 stations to educate the masses so we are all on the same page,” Fullerton says. “It’s the most efficient way to teach the safest way to do things, but then we realized we actually needed to teach people how to do those things as well.”
As small groups go from station to station, instructors have 30 minutes to present on topics like equipment maintenance, oil changes and vehicle inspection, proper edging and pruning techniques, topsoil, seeding and mulching. Presented in both English and Spanish, Fullerton says rodeos have been the best way to make sure the entire team is on the same page and completing tasks in a uniform manner.
“Consistency is important because we share employees across crews, so if they get mixed signals, it’s hard,” Fullerton says. “Even with our top managers, people may do things differently, so it’s important to get consistency in how we do things.”
Fullerton admits that planning rodeos involves a big time commitment, and gathering 180 employees for a day of learning can be pandemonium. So for the last rodeo, he introduced a new twist to ignite excitement.
“We raffled off a plow truck,” Fullerton says. “It was a clunker, but it ran. It was registered and you could plow with it. You want these guys to be there so we built up excitement around this raffle. They couldn’t wait until the end of the day. It was great.”
As he’s formalized more opportunities for learning, Fullerton says that his crew is appreciative of the opportunities and hungry to learn more. When he heard about the Landscape Management Apprenticeship Program, a new program sponsored by the National Association of Landscape Professionals and registered by the U.S. Department of Labor, he says he thought it would be a great way for FGM to offer another level of formal education. He is one of the first landscape companies in the country to implement the program.
FGM’s first class of five apprentices – all current FGM employees – began learning together this past year. The group will benefit from 2,000 hours of instruction, which includes time in the classroom and in the field, work at home and formal computerized evaluations. NALP allows flexibility in the implementation of the program, so FGM has chosen to extend the program from one to two years.
“We want them to live it and do it by the season,” Fullerton says. “In the spring, we want them to learn planting and landscape design, in the winter, snow removal.”
Most of the learning takes place during the workday. Participants are pulled from their normal assignment, typically in fourhour blocks, to dive into topics like seed types and aeration. They’re back in their normal roles by the end of the day so they can see the crews come back in and deal with any issues or needs. COVID-19 has slowed the apprenticeship’s momentum slightly, as some topics have been postponed that are best presented in a classroom setting, like how to read a landscape design plan.
Though the program comes with a cost of about $900 in registration and materials for each participant plus 2,000 work hours devoted to learning, Fullerton says in this industry, where labor shortages are the rule, companies have to provide a place for employees to build a career. Participants also receive wage increases as they successfully complete each portion of the apprenticeship.
“My employees are young and they want to move, and to sustain good employees you need to have growth, you need to have someplace for them to go,” Fullerton says. “When you get good, aggressive employees, they don’t want to wait, they want to grow. You need to accelerate their learning and you have to have positions available for them so it pushes growth. That’s the phase we are in. We are going to be growing so we have the market out there for them to manage.”
Fullerton says the next class of FGM apprentices will include recent college graduates. Over the past year, he’s spent time connecting with college sophomores and juniors who say they are intimidated about joining the workforce. When they find out there is an established apprenticeship program that will prepare them as part of a cohort, it brings them a level of comfort.
“We are building our pipeline of college students so we are a familiar company to them,” he says.
Fullerton has realized the payoff for a well-educated team is much greater than the risk of losing talented employees. In his experience, if you teach employees the ins and outs of the industry, pay them well for their work and treat them respectfully, they’ll be motivated to stay at the company.
“There are a lot of people out there who are afraid that if they develop employees, they’ll take the knowledge and leave,” says Fullerton. “I think you’ll find out the reward is much greater if we develop everyone together for a stronger industry.”