A Can-Do Attitude

January 27, 2007
Written by Carla Allen
26It’s the key to great seasonal help

A willingness to learn, enthusiasm and lots of energy are the most important qualities most garden centre operators look for in seasonal employees.

“Knowledge is definitely an asset but if the foregoing is not there, knowledge doesn’t matter,” said Peggy Godfrey, president and CEO of Atlantic Gardens, which has two locations in Nova Scotia, one in Bedford and one in Sackville.

Godfrey does the bulk of the hiring for the large operation, which brings in seasonal employees for greenhouse production, nursery, perennial and annual departments, as well as floral design assistants and retail sales assistants.

“Their first priority is looking after the customer; everything else in their line of work follows,” said Godfrey.

For John and Lee Dickie, owners of Briar Patch Farm and Nursery in Berwick, N.S., the personality of a prospective employee is critical.

“After many years I have decided that the most important quality in a seasonal employee, in our operation, is friendliness.  Customers don't mind if the employee doesn't have all the answers but they want someone who is friendly and willing to help,” said Dickie.

Bob Osborne, owner of Corn Hill Nursery near Petitcodiac, N.B., has a golden rule for hiring: “If someone comes out to ask for a job, I consider them.  If they come back a second time I will usually hire them.  If their mother comes for them, I never hire them,” he said.

Prospects must also possess enthusiasm and a strong work ethic. His nursery hires approximately 30 seasonal workers, though Osborne classifies many of them as long-term employees.  He usually hires six to eight students who work after school and on Saturdays.

He says that lately it’s been a challenge finding young people who actually know how to work.
“Sounds strange but many kids have never had the responsibility of working toward a goal.  There’s a challenge in also breaking the idea that manual labour has no value or rewards.  The fact that the business is so complex and the physical nursery is so large sometimes overwhelms new workers,” said Osborne.

Dickie says she’s noticed the same problem with regard to newcomers being overwhelmed by the size of the operation and the multi-tasking that’s required.

“The biggest challange in our operation is that everyone does everything, i.e.,  uses the cash register, waits on the customers, waters, etc.  New employees are overwhelmed by the size of the operation and the number of different things we sell.  We try to ease them into each task, training on the cash when it isn't that busy, and spending a few minutes each day on different plants,” she said.

As in any business, good wages, perks and benefits keep employees happy and build loyalty. At Atlantic Gardens seasonal employees are paid more than minimum wage and Godfrey says most seem to enjoy working there.

“Everyone seems to take pride in their work and enjoy selling the products that we carry. We pay one-half of the cost of uniforms, give a staff discount on the products we sell and try to offer incentives to increase and reach sales targets,” she said.

Special staff is hired to look after the ongoing care of the plants so they are kept in good condition and other staff can focus on customer care – the fundamental objective of the company.
“A clean, tidy operation is also paramount as well as offering good sound advice and support,” said Godfrey.

Employees at Corn Hill Nursery are offered a health and dental plan with the cost split between themselves and the company.  During the off-season they can continue to contribute themselves to maintain the plan.  Working hours are quite flexible.

“Their families always come first. Students are told their studies and extracurricular activities such as sports have precedence over work,” said Osborne.

A discount on plants for employees is common but Briar Patch Farm and Nursery goes one step further and gives employees free annuals up to a certain dollar value.  This year, for example, it was $75 for regular employees and $50 for summer staff.

“In addition I try to reward them for good work during peak times with movie passes or other small perks.  I can’t say that this attracts employees, usually it’s the fact that they can work 48 hours per week for two months and then 40 hours per week for the rest of the time,” said Dickie.

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