PEOPLE – OUR GREATEST RESOURCE: How You Gonna Keep ‘Em on the Farm?


Les Shipley
Co-Owner &
Construction Manager
Civano Growers

As owners of nurseries, we all have certain requirements to operate our business­­­­­—land, water, financial resources, etc. We plan for these and acquire them as necessary in order to function.

One important element we all need now, and in the future, is a constant, reliable source of skilled and motivated labor. This topic has been at the forefront of my mind in recent months, if not years. The solution to the problem of finding enough qualified labor is not easily forthcoming, but each of us will need to address it for the future success of our businesses.

The way I see it, we have two questions to answer to solve this issue. First, how do we successfully retain our current workforce? And second, how do we attract or source our future labor? In this article, since we are limited by space, I will mention only a few retention ideas that we have incorporated at Civano Growers, here in sunny Tucson, Arizona.

Let’s face it, competition for labor is everywhere these days. From the minimum wage increase to $11 an hour in Arizona on January 1 this year to Amazon locating warehouses in major cities with reported starting salaries of $15 an hour for work in air-conditioned buildings, the hiring environment is competitive!

Meanwhile, employee turnover is very costly. To train a new employee, it takes time and human resources away from everyday production. According to a blog post from human resources outsourcing provider, G&A Partners, employee turnover can cost up to 50 percent of that person’s salary, if not more.

At Civano Growers, we try to retain employees by providing an enjoyable work environment. One example is our installation of adequate shade structures where our employees can accomplish as many outdoor tasks as possible away from the glaring sun. Water stations are also strategically placed around the nursery to keep employees well hydrated.

Just as importantly for labor retention, we encourage our employees to have greater self-worth and self-esteem regarding their work. First and foremost, we refer to all our frontline workers as Plant Care Technicians, not as workers or laborers.

In 2018, we implemented an innovative program called Civano Academy. This five-level program encourages all of our hourly employees to enhance their work knowledge by voluntarily attending in-house educational seminars. If they successfully pass tests after completing each level, they will receive recognition and a 50-cent-per-hour raise.

  • Level one is simply gaining a knowledge of our company policies and procedures and attending an OSHA farm safety course.
  • Level two provides education on plant identification and work skills.
  • Level three is attending Smartscape, a series of eight classes over four weeks, sponsored by Tucson Water. Graduates of the course receive an attractive gilded diploma.
  • Level four is for employees with at least two years on the job,
  • and consists of Advanced Smartscape Training and advanced work skills.
  • Level five is the final Civano Academy certification. After three years of employment and having passed level four, an employee must successfully earn the Arizona Nursery Association certification, and have worked as a crew leader in at least eight different positions throughout the nursery to give them a well-rounded education.

Whatever methods you decide to use, employee retention should be a first priority. Our workforce will continue to age and will move on, despite our best efforts, so we must continue to be innovative in our ideas in attracting and retaining our labor.