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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here — Emphasis on skills of the trades

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I first met Peter Schwalm more than 20 years ago. He had acquired land for his landscaping business and he was anxious to talk about its history. Part of the site contained the grave of John Coryell, a founder of New Hope.

Schwalm had set aside a small park hoping travelers would stop by to enjoy a piece of history. He groomed a patch of land on Bridge Street (once the York Road) just after Route 202 turns away. He bordered it with a hedge, created a well-groomed lawn and brought attention to the site.

John Coryell operated a ferry at the time of the Revolution, when both sides of the Delaware River were called Coryell’s Ferry and Schwalm was proud to be able to celebrate his place in local history.

Peter and Dan Schwalm had started Professional Landscape Services (PLS) in 1984. The business had a modest beginning and even in the late 1990s, it was a modest operation.

Today, however, it is a substantial operation. Behind the memorial to John Coryell is a large building holding offices on two floors and a garage tall enough to accommodate big trucks – a fleet of dump trucks, pickups, plows and earth movers. You’ve probably seen them around Bucks County as they serve homes and businesses.

Schwalm takes pride in the PLS workforce and the longtime retention of employees, unheard of in most landscaping businesses. “Our first employee, Bruce, still works for us,” Schwalm said as we sat in the sun on one of those recent balmy spring days.

I visited the office on a day when the staff was celebrating foreman Danilo Vargas’ 25th anniversary with the company. He came to Bucks County from Costa Rica, settled in and has raised a family.

When the cake was brought out, the staff had to search for Vargas. He had walked down to the Aquetong Creek, which flows behind the site. “Danilo likes to fish in the creek,” Schwalm said. That day, when employees had a free afternoon because of the party, he was not fishing, just walking. The other workers were waiting for him in the office.

Schwalm presented Danilo with a watch, knowing that he was fond of fine watches. Danilo responded, “Thanks for the job.”
We were about a dozen people gathered for cake, workers from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, plus office staff, including Jeff Robinson, head designer and Matt Stachel, designer and estimator.

Stachel had contacted me to suggest a possible story about the hiring process, company culture and the steps the company was taking “to change the way people think of a job in the trades industry.”

Stachel explained, “A couple of years ago we started to wonder exactly what we were doing that enabled us to keep employees, especially field workers, in an industry that usually has very high turnover.”

Schwalm and his staff spent about a year analyzing the company culture and chatting with the team to find out what made them choose to work with PLS and why they had chosen to stay so long.

PLS created a program they named EPGS (Employee Path to Growth and Success). The team developed a process that would help them find more skilled candidates and train, motivate and inspire workers to not only stay for a long time but to become leaders in their professional and personal lives.

We will send them to school and training,” Schwalm said. Landscaping is hard work and the future most of the time is uncertain, he added. “We want to inspire people to put on boots and work.”

EPGS is a process to help identify skills in a potential candidate. It’s also a predetermined set of skills that are broken down into sub categories with monetary values for each level. As they gain prescribed skills, the employees have a pay incentive. They can see what their future could look like as they acquire skills – not just cutting lawns, but caring for trees and plants, maintaining and operating equipment, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and computer skills. The speed for getting a promotion or a raise is only limited by their drive and ambition.

“They don’t have to ask for a raise, Schwalm said. “As they achieve each level, they get a raise.”

“It’s a standard that has been done in the corporate world but one that is unheard of in blue-collar fields,” Stachel said. “We provide tools, training and ongoing education to help employees grow and thrive. We celebrate them for the good things they accomplish instead of reprimanding them for mistakes they make.”

The process “lays out the first day where you could go,” Robinson said.

Schwalm is aware of the need for more young people to join the trades. He’s hoping to encourage some to choose to be a skilled tradesman. One new worker who will benefit from the program this summer is a intern from Williamson College for the Trades near Media, which provides tuition, room and boarding at no cost to the student.

Like most businesses, PLS had a few setbacks related to COVID-19, but business is rebounding.

“We do more than move dirt, install plants and build patios. Stachel said. “We’re designing and creating elegant outdoor living spaces so you can savor nature’s beauty and enjoy life with the people who matter most.”

John Coryell’s park is still in place, across the road from First National Bank of Newtown.

Anyone looking for a career in the landscape construction industry is encouraged to contact plsblue.com.


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