The University of Minnesota landcare department is about 50 people short as its employees begin work for the spring.
The division hopes to hire and train a green-thumbed workforce of roughly 100 student workers in mowing, planting, fertilizing, mulching and more. But over the last three years, the team has seen less interest from students, forcing their staff count to hover around 95. Even missing just a few workers makes keeping up with duties difficult.
“It stretches us out,” said supervisor Doug Lauer. “We wind up hiring through the whole summer … [but] never hit our target.”
The division is responsible for mowing lawns, pulling weeds, trimming shrubs, cleaning litter and other campus maintenance.
The worker shortage causes problems across the board, said former landcare director Lester Potts, who retired Monday after a 40-year tenure with the department. He said problems show most in mowing duties.
When the weather warms, lawns need to be cut twice a week instead of once.
“It’ll be a struggle to keep up there,” Potts said. “Not having enough people to man the mowers, … it really throws a wrench into things.”
Potts said he has seen other hiring lulls in his tenure, but in recent years, students have become less interested in blue-collar jobs. Starting hourly wage for student landcare workers in $10.25.
“A lot of people are laying it on millennials,” he said. “Their desires are different.”
As the department races to meet its 100-worker summer goal each year, the months in-between are especially challenging for workers. Hiring efforts start in March but don’t finish until late May, Lauer said.
“We are usually just skimming by to meet our needs,” Lauer said. “The gardeners that we have on staff, a lot of time will work overtime in spring.”
Gardener Danielle Ringle said she’s still looking to fill all the spots on her 10-person team for repair projects. The department has taken on some external contractors as a result.
“This is pretty abnormal,” said Ringle, who worked for the department all four years of her undergraduate studies and returned for a full-time job.
The best scenario for the University’s department is finding a freshman, like Ringle, who’s willing to stick with them until they graduate, Potts said.
“Students are here for education, and if we can provide them financial support, it’s a good thing,” he said.
The department has started renovating certain sites into naturalist areas, like the urban meadow next to the law school, Lauer said. These areas take less upkeep, but only a few places around campus can be turned into these kinds of areas.
They also still take years to set up, he said.
Some colleges’ land care departments have moved away from a student workforce, Potts said. At a Big 10 meeting among landcare officials, Potts said other colleges were surprised to hear how many students the University employs.
“It’s not a reliable workforce. The turnover is high. You invest a lot in training and educating people,” he said.
Lauer said interest from students follows the job market. In 2008, when the state was reeling from the Great Recession, a lack of outside jobs led to student interest being at an all-time high.
“It’s amazing when you give people the opportunity to work with their hands,” he said. “Making something go from not looking good to looking really good, it gives you a lot of pride.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Danielle Ringle's name.