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Skilled Irrigation Technicians are Needed in Areas of Nation as Demand Rises
May 2017 - By Emily Schappacher
A lack of skilled technicians is taking its toll on the irrigation industry.
The struggle to find quality workers is hitting irrigation harder than almost anywhere in the green industry. Experts say companies are struggling to keep up with seasonal demands due to a significant shortage of skilled irrigation technicians.
“Labor is available,” says Scott King, owner of Preferred Building Systems, a water auditing and consulting company in Cape Coral, Fla., and president of the Florida Irrigation Society. “Skilled labor is what is very difficult to find.”
One reason for the shortage of skilled irrigation techs is the necessary level of expertise can take years learn, says John Butters, irrigation manager for Timberline Landscaping in Colorado Springs, Colo., and member of the Irrigation Association’s (IA) certification board. Most of Timberline’s technicians, whose ages average 41, started as laborers on installation crews and learned their expertise by working in the field for many years.
“It takes time and experience to become a good irrigation tech; it’s difficult to teach in a single season,” Butters says. “It also requires above-average smarts and pretty good math skills at times. You’re usually out there by yourself and are expected to be able to diagnose and repair any problem. It’s not for everyone.”
Additionally, many people entering the workforce don’t see the irrigation industry as a desirable field to enter, says David Hartzell, general manager of New Jersey Best Lawns, Sprinklers & Fencing. They also don’t realize how much money they can make. The full-service landscape firm in Lakewood, N.J., pays technicians between $35,000 to $75,000 annually. Hartzell adds that the winter weather keeps his techs out of the field from Dec. 1 to March 15 each year. The company needs 10 to 15 fully trained service technicians to operate each year, and losing even one causes delays in service and startups.
“There seems to be very little interest in the industry as a whole,” Hartzell says.
Another reason for the shortage of skilled technicians, sources say, is a decline in companies that focus exclusively on irrigation. Many companies now offer irrigation as one of their many services, and may assign the work to basic laborers they already have on staff instead of hiring and investing in skilled irrigation technicians.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, there were a lot of companies that just handled irrigation,” he says. “Now, you have large landscape maintenance companies that have absorbed irrigation into their work.”
Spread too thin
The shortage of skilled irrigation technicians is having a negative impact on the industry as a whole, experts say. Without knowledgeable technicians, systems are more likely to be installed and maintained improperly, resulting in water waste. Many drought-stricken areas of the country face severe water restrictions. Some places, like Florida, don’t have mandatory water use standards, which de-emphasizes conservative water use, King says.
“The irrigation contractor gets a bad rap these days because, quite frankly, most are not required to conserve water,” King says. “If your feet were held to the fire when it came to how efficiently you used water, then it would be more important to have skilled technicians. Until some standards are established, there is no incentive to improve what is going on.”
The lack of qualified labor has forced some companies to change the way they operate. For example, New Jersey Best has raised prices for new installations by 8 to 10 percent and now faces a 30- to 45-day lead time for new installs. Hartzell says the company has switched to Wi-Fi-based controllers to decrease the number of basic service calls and has begun to use flow sensors to detect leaks so systems can be shut down remotely.
Butters says his technicians not only do service calls but have property assignments as part of annual maintenance contracts. They are responsible for winterizing, spring startups, weekly equipment checks, repairs, the initial programming of the irrigation schedule and adjustments to that schedule throughout the season.
“(Our technicians) have a lot to do, and there is almost always a sense of being spread a little too thin,” he says. “I think our techs do a great job, but it always seems like we could use a couple more. You can’t just go hire another one because they aren’t there.”
Industry organizations, manufacturers and distributors are trying to offset the technician shortage by providing education and training.
For example, the IA offers a certified irrigation technician (CIT) exam so field employees can gain more knowledge. The IA’s Irrigation Foundation supports technicians through its scholarship program. It also has worked with the IA’s professional development department to offer college students an academic track for the CIT exam and the certified landscape irrigation auditor designations.
Additionally, each year the Foundation hosts the Irrigation E3 Program during the Irrigation Show & Education Conference. The program provides education and experience to irrigation students and faculty members. The Foundation also holds Faculty Academy each summer, a train-the-trainer program designed for agriculture and landscape irrigation educators to learn and take their knowledge back to the classroom.
According to IA data, 123 irrigation professionals passed the CIT exam, and 23 students and three faculty members participated in the Foundation’s E3 program in 2016. The IA also notes that 99 percent of its members say certifying irrigation professionals is important for the irrigation industry, and 94 percent say their company recognizes the value of hiring IA-certified professionals.
“We feel there is room for growth in all of our certification and education programs,” says John Farner, IA government and public affairs director. “We need to ensure that our workforce is educated and trained to not only meet the needs of the market, but also to ensure there is enough water for irrigation for future generations.”
Groups are making efforts on the local level, too. Through the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado’s Landscape Career Pathways Program, Timberline Landscaping has partnered with a local high school to teach students skills that will allow them to be job-ready upon graduation. The curriculum at Falcon High School in Peyton, Colo., is expected to begin during the 2017-2018 school year. It aims to connect 15 to 20 high school students with the landscape irrigation industry through work/study programs and internships. While programs like these are steps in the right direction, Butters isn’t convinced they are enough to produce the number of skilled technicians needed.
“It’s not happening quick enough,” he says. “We need to force the issue a little more and devote more time and resources when we recognize ability in an individual. It’s hard to substitute or duplicate years of experience, but maybe we can do a better job of taking advantage of training and educational opportunities to speed up the process.”
Like Butters, many professionals believe that the future of labor in the irrigation industry is all about training, and needs to start with individual companies investing in their current employees. By making training a priority, companies may entice their irrigation techs to gain the knowledge and know-how to be valuable assets for the long term.
“I think every company has to do the best they can and figure out where they are going to get the training,” King says. “If a trained irrigation tech knocks on your door and wants to work for you, take advantage of it. They’re in high demand right now.”