By Jeff Book
What: State and professional certifications are intended to protect your business and the consumer.
Why: The work of unregulated and unlicensed contractors leads to millions of dollars in losses for consumers.
Bottom Line: State requirements aim to level the playing field for contractors, but often lack enforcement.
In the June issue of TLC, outgoing editor Glenn DiNella really touched a nerve with his final editor’s letter. In it, he argued against the escalating amount and cost of red tape for green industry professionals. He complained that, except where public safety is involved as with pesticide application, the array of licenses and permits required for even a small landscaping business is often excessive.
Readers were quick to respond, both pro and con. An “appalled” Wes Gauthier of Greenlife Landscape in Lafayette, Louisiana, wrote, “I have a college degree in my profession and numerous industry certifications and courses under my belt. I am confident that having a license separates the qualified contractors from the unqualified. In my area, we have a serious problem with unlicensed contractors who think it is as simple as buying a rake and shovel at the nearest box store and throwing some plants in the ground. You can be assured the homeowner will soon realize they’ve been had and will have to hire someone else to complete it, but in the meantime, our industry earns a bad name.”
Sunleaf Nursery, near Lake Erie in Madison, Ohio, maintains nursery dealer’s and pesticide licenses. Before he was a grower, general manager Jay Daley spent years working in garden centers and for landscape contractors. “I agree that we don’t need any more fees or taxes, and we certainly don’t need the local, state or federal governments micromanaging our businesses,” he wrote. “But certification means professionalism to those of us who grow, sell and install landscape materials. We as an industry need to raise standards so that green industry employers and employees are accepted as the professionals we are instead of uneducated laborers who provide a necessary service at a high price.
“Why should the scraper with a truck tear down the credibility of the educated contractor who has a legitimate business, pays income and payroll taxes and worker compensation insurance to protect the employee and the customer, carries liability insurance, and does everything else that a legitimate business contributes to the community?”
Money Better Spent Other Ways?
While the industry’s relatively low cost of entry may attract some dodgy operators, it also allows serious ones to boot-strap a start-up into a successful company. Having left TLC to launch an eco-friendly landscaping business, DiNella is experiencing first-hand what he editorialized about. Most irritating, he finds, are the business licenses he has to obtain across his service area, including two counties and numerous municipalities. “All of those small ($75 or so) fees add up when you’re a small business,” he says. “That’s money I could be spending on new equipment or advertising or something that is going to help my business during these tough economic times.” And, of course, tough times are leading cash-strapped governments to increase fees wherever possible (I’m talking about you, New York).
Still, licensing is as inevitable as lawn mowing. But compared to those in other industries, requirements for the landscaping trade are generally pretty simple. The most widespread one also is the most sensible: a license for applying pesticides. State pesticide control dates back to 1947, when Congress enacted the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Few would debate the need for nurseries to have dealer’s licenses—not just to protect consumers but to prevent the spread of pests and pathogens.
A small but growing number of states have or are considering licenses for fertilizer application, aimed in part at controlling downstream effects (in Maryland, for example, where runoff into Chesapeake Bay is a major concern). Fees for these and other licenses help pay for state inspection, training and enforcement programs. State continuing-education requirements also ensure that pesticide (and other) licensees keep up with new knowledge and practices.
State Regs All Over the Map
Beyond hazardous chemicals, state regulations vary widely. Of course, for larger-scale, big-ticket projects, many states require a general contractor’s license.
States that regulate landscape contractors may do so through a department of agriculture, consumer-oriented agency, department of revenue or bureau of professional licensing. Some states require every employee in the field to have a license for work performed. Others are satisfied if a supervisor carries the required licenses. Some require licensees to pass an occupational exam, while in a few a license seems more a proof of business legitimacy (taxes, insurance) than expertise.
In California, a state that loves to license, landscape contracting is one of more than 50 occupations requiring a Class C Specialty License, with additions for related sub-classifications, such as hydroseed spraying, tree service and siding and decking.
In Georgia, you need a license to be a massage therapist or a private detective, but not a landscape contractor – although to sell design services, you’re supposed to be a certified landscape architect.
Bigger Business, Bigger Pain
If you think it’s a pain to keep up with your firm’s requirements for state, county and local licenses, imagine what it’s like for a company operating in several states. “It’s laborious,” admits Tom Donnelly, president of the landscape development division of ValleyCrest, which lists licenses from 22 states on its Web site. “We have one person in our contracts department who focuses on keeping up with licensing requirements, including continuing education requirements and hundreds of local business licenses. But I’d say licensing is less a burden than a hurdle. It promotes safe practices and professionalism.”
“Licensing levels the playing field for competent contractors,” says Kory Beidler of the Brickman Group, which operates in 30 states. “We’d like to see more consistent certification across the board. You want it to mean something to clients, but licenses and certification are also a good way to make sure our employees are well trained.”
With patchy rules and lax oversight, however, licensing is sometimes hit-or-miss.
“The majority of states have little or no enforcement to catch the unlicensed – so the licensed are just regulating themselves,” says Tom Delaney, director of government affairs for the Professional Landcare Network, or PLANET. In lieu of uniform state requirements, groups like his aim to provide a national standard through voluntary certification. “We ensure our exams meet industry standards, and several states recognize our certification,” Delaney says. PLANET’s credentials require continuing education units for renewal every two years and have been accredited by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (yes, even credentials need credentials).
The other main set of industry-wide credentials comes from the Irrigation Association. “Certification shows a professional level of expertise, one kept up-to-date with continuing education,” says the IA’s Eva Hornak. “Best practices change, techniques evolve.”
Customers should be impressed by contractors who go beyond necessary state and local licenses. Alabama landscaper Chris Francis only operates in the verdant arc around Mobile Bay, but he’s just as quick as multi-state powerhouse ValleyCrest to show off his credentials. His Web site, , touts certification by the International Society of Arboriculture and affiliations with the state Urban Forestry and Irrigation Associations, among others. “My competition is sometimes a guy with a pickup truck, a lawnmower and a bottle of Roundup,” he says. “I was that guy once. But I’m also a believer in building my business and protecting the consumer. We provide clients proof of all our licenses and insurance. Then they’ll ask for the same documentation from other contractors and see them disappear.”
Francis understands certification can be a marketing tool: “It’s helped me get my foot in the door on several jobs I wouldn’t have had a shot at” – for example, being a Certified Arborist helped him land a contract to work on Alabama’s State Champion Live Oak. “It allows us to obtain a premium for our work,” he notes. “It can make the difference between a free and a paid consultation.”
But if licensing seems arbitrary, it can meet with resistance. When the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association surveyed its members about a law to license landscape contractors, a large majority were against it. The state already requires pesticide and irrigation licenses and, for anything more than landscape maintenance, a home improvement license. And most of its 556 townships already require landscape contractors to have licenses. The proposed law would have added continuing education and “moral character” requirements.
“I know people in the field with a high school education who teach me something every day,” says Paul Keyes, a contractors who opposed the bill. “I have a master’s degree in the field and have taught horticulture at a college level—why should I have to go back to Rutgers to study what I’ve been practicing for 30 years?”
The law was voted down in the last legislative session. “The consumer in this state already has legal recourse,” Keyes notes. “The proposed law was about control and about filling seats in continuing education programs. If the state enforced existing regulations, there would be no need for more.”
And maybe that’s the key, say industry veterans: not more regulations, but applying existing ones… and convincing consumers that good credentials mean a better job. TLC