Local college students’ business helping them cut through tough job market

An other 2.1 million people file for unemployment despite gradual reopen; one in six young people out of work
The Grass Barbers

ONALASKA, Wis. (WKBT) – Another 2.1 million Americans have filed for unemployment despite the economy gradually reopening. La Crosse County’s unemployment rate sits around 13-percent right now.

Young people are taking a big hit in the job market. However, two college sophomores from Onalaska are cutting down the obstacles.

Backyards are places where we grew up. The epicenter of our childhood. The smell of freshly cut grass probably takes people back to those days.

“Now we’re going into our third season of mowing,” said AJ Ervin, coowner of The Grass Barbers, a local lawn care business.

Try to picture your own backyard as the new classroom of 2020. Ervin and coowner Jonathan Flanagan left their college freshman classrooms a little early.

“We only had about three days notice to basically pack up and leave all our things and go home,” Ervin said.

He left UW-Madison and Flanagan left UW-La Crosse as the world took a pause.

“To leave basically what became my new life and my new friends all at once…it was pretty depressing,” Ervin said.

These life long friends planned to open their seasonal business that was only a temporary mission.

“We said, ‘Hey this is the perfect opportunity to transition from school to start early on our business,'” Ervin said.

Things were not that simple at first.

“We were kind of nervous because mowing was not considered an essential service,” Flanagan said.

Their efforts to prepare didn’t stop and when the green light was given, their green service was ready to mow.

“Our first day was on my birthday, April 18,” Flanagan said. “I guess that was kind of the start of a great year.”

Their business is growing with the grass.

“As of today we are at $10,000 for revenue and at this time last year we were at $1,700,” Ervin said.

Flanagan said they are efficient with there work because there’s no time to waste.

“Let’s just say an average-sized lawn, about 20-30 minutes,” he said. “Time is money.”

The young men had a backup plan saving themselves from a job market that has cut opportunities for young workers.

Data from the International Labor Organization shows one in six young workers is no longer working since the start of the pandemic.

“I feel for the people our age and not our age,” Flanagan said. “People who have lost their jobs or can’t find work.”

Debt, however, grows like a weed. There $1.56 trillion in student debt nationwide, according to data highlighted by Forbes, averaging $32,700 per student. That’s the second-highest consumer debt category behind only mortgages.

Young people are still driven. A Junior Achievement study shows 50 percent of teens say they are likely to consider starting a business.

“We haven’t regretted it for a second,” Ervin said.

Their college major is a useful tool.

“My dad was also a finance major at UWL so I am following in his footsteps and AJ is also a finance major,” Flanagan said.

Ervin said he wants to land a job on Wall Street after college. Neither of them could remember what they learned from their last college lecture, but they don’t hesitate when asked what they’ve learned here.

“It’s given me a new appreciation for hard work and respect,” Flanagan said.

Even when the obstacles grow to unmeasurable heights, a business built on life-long-learning can clear the way for new opportunities.

“We hold ourselves to a great standard because we have adults, younger kids that are always looking up to us and believe in us,” Ervin said. “I feel like, why not? The sky’s the limit. Especially with everything that’s happening in the economy right now. We are going to see growth bounce back eventually. It’s a great time to have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

The gentlemen we met found knowledge no further than the backyards of their community.

“If you take the time to understand everything that’s going on, accept that it’s happening and there’s really nothing you can control about it,” Ervin said. “If you understand that you can channel your energy into something you can control.”

Flanagan and Ervin are mentoring students at Onalaska High School who are interested in business and finance. They also buy all their supplies from local businesses to support the economy. They say the pandemic has taught them how to follow health guidelines and still offer services people need.