September 15, 2013
Letter to the Editor
It's time for regulation

I am responding to Tony DiGiovanni’s request in his column in the June 2013 issue of Landscape Ontario magazine for opinions about whether or not to regulate the landscaping industry.

I started on my own in 1983, after three years at Humber College in landscape technology. When the industry first talked about regulating, being naïve, I was against it. I thought it would be like shooting ourselves in the foot.
Property owners would not pay higher prices for something that was for the most part a cosmetic enhancement of their property. It is not like plumbing or electrical, where serious damage could occur if they improperly perform their own work. Many owners opt to take care of their own landscaping. Of course, we have all seen what can happen when property owners do their own landscaping.

Years later, this topic comes up again and I now realize why it is so important to regulate. All of us in the industry work too many hours for the return on investment. We have high overheads, expensive equipment and good people who should be able to live better and not have to work 60 hours per week during the season in order to earn enough to survive through the winter.

In the past ten years, I have lost six people to the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) industry. The main reason was money. They were willing to take an initial pay cut, knowing that in five years they would have the potential to almost double their wage from what they made landscaping. I was recently on a job site in Toronto, when a 20-something individual came up to me. He said he wanted to be a landscaper, but he got a union job with a masonry company and he earns $42 per hour. Without regulation, we cannot compete with this.

As owners, we all know the feeling when asked by property owners what our hourly rate is and the look of astonishment from customers if they hear anything over $30 to $40 per hour. Yet an electrician, plumber or A/C contractor can tell them $70 to-$80 per hour and that’s OK. The local garage/dealer can get $80 to $90 per hour and the customer says go ahead, fix the car, but landscapers ask for $40 or more and we are crazy, even though we have high overhead many times higher than that of other trades. We roll up to our sites with a $90,000 truck, a $10,000 trailer, a $50,000 skidsteer or mini-excavator,  numerous other power tools and employees earning $20 to $35 per hour, and we are thieves for asking for $40 to $50 per hour. Yet an HVAC contractor with a $35,000 van and $15,000 worth of tools can show up and get $80 to $90 per hour, plus travel time. I know that they have more specific trade education, but somehow we need to get better returns. If regulation will help this, then count me in.

We need to somehow get it through the heads of our customers that we have an important role in constructing and maintaining properties. We are on the right track with the Green for Life campaign. Now we need to better educate the consumer, so they will value our services. We have all seen bad landscaping projects, bad drainage issues, collapsed retaining walls, overgrown gardens and ugly patios. Now we need to use these examples and show consumers how, when done right, our services will add to their property value. This is what they will pay attention to.

Consumers are bombarded with renovation ideas. New kitchen, bathroom and basement renovations; this is our competition, not each other. We have to go after this market and stop (as Mark Bradley puts it) the race to the bottom by competing with each other where none of us are winning.

If regulation can weed out (pun intended) some of the unscrupulous contractors and level the playing field, then let’s go for it.

Remember the gas wars? People would travel 10 to 20 minutes out of their way when gas was cheaper somewhere else. Now the price is the same everywhere. I am not saying everyone deserves the same price for their service, as some companies have earned the right to charge more. I am, however, suggesting a base rate at the very least. We all hear of how prices are all over the map and maybe with regulation we can have a base rate that can be monitored. We have to look out for the underground economy. A lot of “companies” like to operate this way. They are short sighted though, and where are they in five to 10 years? We may need to establish a consumer protection program that we all pay into to protect against bad work. We could use a demerit point system or similar to suspend companies that have negative reports against them. With better rates, we can do a lot of things to help this great industry.

After 30-plus years, I am starting to spend a little less time in the field. I realize how nice it would have been to not have had to work so much for so long for so little, just to keep afloat. If we regulate now, future generations can gain so much from our decision. It’s time to spend more time on the business, not just in it.

Brad Ware,
Ware-With-All Contracting,