Interview by Brooke N. Bates

Ask any company in the green industry about their biggest challenges, and labor availability will likely come up.

“Workforce challenges are the biggest single threat that companies are struggling with this year across the industry,” says Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy and research at AmericanHort.

While AmericanHort advocates for change in Congress to alleviate some of these labor pains, Regelbrugge says companies need to change their mindset about “the L-word.” In his session at Cultivate’17, he’ll explain what’s happening in Washington and share how growers are exploring new ways to overcome workforce challenges. Here’s a sneak peek.

Q: What can attendees expect from your session about labor?

A: Everybody throughout the industry is having labor pains. In many cases, it’s inhibiting current production, and it’s absolutely inhibiting growth potential. I’ve talked to growers who say the market conditions would enable expansion right now, but the labor situation is the single biggest constraint.

We all know that we need Congress to ultimately act, but we don’t know how long we’ll wait and what the substance will be. So we’ll spend some time in my session talking about the congressional picture as well as our interactions with the administration, which are picking up. We’ll spend some time on the policy side, but then we’ll also share alternative labor sources, tips and options that have worked for other companies.

Q: How are others in the industry overcoming these labor challenges?

A: Some of the more interesting and aggressive recruiting efforts I’ve heard about in the industry have been on the landscape side. They’ve run the gamut from seeking out resettled refugees, to building relationships with organizations that are working to resettle veterans coming back after foreign service. I’ve even talked to folks who are trying to build relationships that enable them to hire the formerly incarcerated.

Q: What’s happening in Congress, and what is AmericanHort doing to impact that?

A: A good bit of our recent effort has been trying to get more bandwidth in the availability of H-2B visas for the season ahead. Even though H-2B is primarily a landscape issue, it effects the whole supply chain. If the landscape company tells the grower, ‘Don’t ship my order; I don’t have the labor to get it in the ground on schedule,’ the pipeline backs up.

The environment is not yet ripe for legislation to move in Congress. Everybody’s watching and waiting; they don’t want to get crosswise with the new administration too quickly on this difficult an issue. But the education work never stops, so we’re going to be at it all summer. We’re encouraging folks to come to Washington, D.C., for Impact Washington, our advocacy summit September 12-13. It really comes down to individual companies making it part of their business model to get to know their elected leaders and their staff, and to tell the story.

In political and policy debates, we’ve got to demonstrate that we’re rolling over every rock (to find labor). We need folks to realize that we’ve got new opportunities, and we’ve got to fight for them.

Q: How should companies think or act differently to make the most of the labor situation?

A: Regardless of what Congress ultimately does, labor woes are here to stay. So people need to be thinking hard about how to streamline whatever they do with automation and mechanization to make labor use more efficient. If anybody is still regarding labor the same way they regard other inputs that are critical to growing, like water and nutrients, we’ve got to get beyond that. The I-word is so polarizing, so we’ve got to stop talking about immigration, and we’re largely going to stop using the L-word. We’re going to be increasingly talking about workforce development, because that’s really what this is.