Finding the next generation of the green industry

Features - Cover Story

Landscape contractors and local associations are tapping into a younger generation to help change the perception of the green industry and develop a future workforce.

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January 2, 2018
Megan Smalley
Photos by Kevin Kopanski

When the Illinois Landscape Contractor’s Association organized focus groups to gather perceptions of the green industry, the feedback was less than stellar.

“It’s all hard work.”

“They’re out there in the elements.”

“The only person who makes money is the owner.”

“It’s all Hispanic workers.”

The ILCA hosted one focus group with members of the general population, one with parents of students and one with high school students.

About 10 to 14 people attended each focus group, where they met with a moderator to share their thoughts on the landscaping industry, watch a video about landscaping jobs and respond to follow-up questions on their perceptions of the industry after watching the video. Members of the ILCA monitored the groups from behind a two-way mirror.

High school students are a more open-minded age group, willing to learn about different landscape industry career opportunities.

“It was tough to listen to, but at least it was ungarnished and unbiased,” says Scott Grams, executive director of ILCA.

But there was a silver lining. The responses from the high school students were more positive than the general population and the parents. Some perspectives from high school students included seeing the industry as something “stable” and “in-demand,” as well as something that helps the environment and an industry with plenty of opportunities.

At the beginning of the focus group with high school students, four out of the 10 students said they would consider a career in the green industry. At the end, eight out of the 10 students said they would consider a career in the green industry.

To Grams, this portion of the study provided good news for landscapers. It revealed that high school students are much more open-minded when it comes to learning about career opportunities. If a landscaper’s main goal is to recruit people, then high school students are a good demographic to target – not elementary school students whose opinions are shaped by that of their parents nor college students who sometimes have already made up their minds on a career path.

“Almost every student said, ‘My parents would be disappointed.’ That was the jumping off point – we have a huge problem.” Cassie Larson, executive director, Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association

“You would be wasting a lot of time and resources trying to start (recruiting) students when they’re in the fourth grade,” Grams says. “You would be better off starting when they are in high school.”

Since completing the study, ILCA and its Future Landscape Industry Professionals (FLIP) committee has been planning to reach out more to high school students to expose students to green industry careers. This includes attending high school career nights and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) events. FLIP also plans to lead a career day for green industry students who attend the 2018 iLandscapes show Jan. 31 - Feb. 2 in Illinois.

“As we build off this study and give these resources to FLIP, we’re focused on finding ways to get these careers in front of high school kids, which is a laser-focused audience,” Grams says.

ILCA isn’t the only group to conclude high school students might be a viable solution to the labor shortage problem. Other industry associations and contractors connected with Lawn & Landscape to share how they have been working to change misconceptions about the industry and target high school students as next-generation employees.

Students compete at the National Collegiate Landscape Competition last year. This year, high school students are invited to the event, which you can learn more about in the sidebar below.
Photo by Brian Horn
Educate educators.

Nearly a decade before ILCA’s focus groups, the Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association (MNLA) performed a similar study. Cassie Larson, executive director of MNLA, says the most interesting finding in the study came after students in the focus group were asked what their parents’ response would be if they told them they wanted to be a landscaper or a grower.

“Every student said, ‘my parents would be disappointed,’” Larson says. “That was the jumping off point – we have a huge problem.”

One of the ways MNLA tackled this problem was by teaming with agricultural educators at the high school level. The association purchased a horticulture curriculum from the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association in 2010. MNLA then reviewed the curriculum to make it region-relevant. By 2015, MNLA released the curriculum to be used in the state’s ag schools, vocational schools and public schools. The association connected with the Minnesota Department of Education to approve the curriculum in order to meet state education standards.

Today, MNLA offers educational materials to students of all ages. For the younger kids, the lessons teach students how to plant seeds or it prompts them to use Legos to build what might be perceived as a patio. For the high schoolers, the lessons educate them on careers offered in the landscaping industry as well as plant sciences and math skills.

The Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC) has also been focused on connecting with high schools. Becky Garber, director of communications at ALCC, says the association has had much success in partnering with high school educators and students the last few years. She attributes this success to the association’s long-time partnership with the Colorado Community College System, which has helped connect the association with high school teachers.

“For the last two years, our partnership with the Colorado Community College System has allowed us to actively give (high school) teachers training in hands-on skills so they know how to teach their students basic skills such as planting, installing pavers, irrigation system installation and maintenance and how to use the greenhouse to teach plant science,” Garber says.

ALCC first partnered with the Colorado Community College System about 12 years ago to try to build connections with high school educators, and Garber says opportunities to connect with educators ramped up about two years ago as more high school educators gained interest in teaching technical education to high school students. “That’s when the stars really aligned for us,” she says. “Most of the Colorado Community College System’s effort is to help high school teachers develop programs that sooner or later will lead students to post-secondary education. In order to get them on that path, high school is the strategic point to recruit.”

Attend events.

In addition to connecting with high school students through vocational programs, associations and contractors might want to consider getting involved in events such as school career nights, STEM nights at schools or FFA competitions.

Patrick Lynch, senior designer at Peabody Landscape in Columbus, Ohio, and his twin brother Mike Lynch, account representative at Environmental Management in Columbus, both saw benefits in getting involved with FFA’s nursery and landscape-based Career Development Events, which is a testing program for high school students considering a career in landscaping.

A few years ago, though, Patrick and Mike had the idea to develop a more interactive landscaping competition for students.

“A teacher told me his students could never pass the test to attend CDE,” Patrick says. “So, I said, ‘What if we create an event where all high schools throughout Ohio, no matter what, can come? We could have test problems and industry representatives. Would you come?’ And he said, ‘In a heartbeat, my students would love it.’”

With that, the Lynch brothers pitched their idea for a more inclusive student landscaping competition to the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association. ONLA loved the idea – the state association formed a committee for the event and recruited help from contractors across the state. By 2016, the association hosted its first event, which it dubbed the Ohio High School Landscape Olympics.

The Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association hosted its second Ohio High School Landscape Olympics in 2017, where 250 students participated.

Part of the Lynch brothers’ idea for OHLO was to involve many regional landscape contractors and industry companies in the event. While ONLA would handle event logistics – such as finding a host school, providing food and recruiting vocational schools and students to attend – the contractors and companies would create and manage their own competitions. Each company is responsible for their own test problem, so they develop a hands-on test for students and pay for everything needed with the test.

“The neat thing about it is each test problem we have is ran, operated and facilitated by an industry company,” Patrick says. “So, the ONLA doesn’t have to mess with the test problems. They just take care of overall event management, while us companies put together test problems for students.”

Partnerships can help with these test problems, too. Patrick says Peabody Landscape teamed with Willoway Nursery to manage the plant installation test at OHLO 2017. In addition, he says some landscaping companies and local colleges donated money to provide ONLA with funds for food, tents and tables to use.

At OHLO, students compete in a variety of events like truck and trailer operation, skid-steer operation, sales presentation, irrigation, landscape maintenance and plant installation to name a few.

OHLO was such a hit among teachers and students in 2016 that ONLA decided to bring it back again in November 2017. This past fall, 250 students from 20 schools participated.

“On the professional level, we need people in the industry. The industry has been good to me, so I want students to know this is a viable career path for them.” Mike Lynch, account representative, Environmental Management

“As a first impression, I really like this event,” says Aaron Blaney, a junior at Auburn Career Center in Painesville, Ohio, who participated in OHLO in 2017. “It got me out into the elements and prepared to get into the business and work for people. I learned techniques here that I might not learn anywhere else.”

ONLA plans to host OHLO again in 2018. Mike envisions the event growing to include new competitions in 2018 such as turfgrass management and arboriculture. Although helping to manage an event such as OHLO can add to busy contractors’ work schedules and it sometimes means partnering with competitors, Mike says it’s more than worth it to be involved in these types of events.

“We want to give back to the industry and encourage these (students),” he says. “Is there cost involved? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. I’m out a couple of days of sales and some of my staff is here, but it’s all worth it. On the professional level, we need people in the industry. The industry has been good to me, so I want students to know this is a viable career path for them. When it comes to improving the future of our industry and giving students an opportunity to showcase their skills, we all need to be a team.”

ONLA plans to host OHLO again in 2018, with hopes of adding new competitions to the event in arboriculture and turfgrass management.
Offer scholarships and real-world experience.

When connections with high school students are established, associations and contractors can also try to promote industry scholarships or internships to further engage these students. James Martin Associates, based in Vernon Hills, Illinois, has offered internships for just over 30 years and sponsored scholarships for about 18 years. President Jim Martin says both the internships and scholarships raise awareness about landscaping job opportunities.

“I think by being active in the (scholarships), most candidates consider us an opportunity for work,” Martin says. “That’s a significant differentiator for how they see and perceive us.”

In addition, Martin says he requires his interns to put together a PowerPoint presentation at the end of their internship to share about their experience, and he asks them to share that presentation with their classmates when they return to school. “That has also helped us to feed, sponsor and promote the internship program,” he says.

Students Max Zugan (left) and Aaron Blaney participated in the 2017 Ohio High School Landscape Olympics. Patrick Lynch (center) helped pitch the idea for the event.

Also, adding real-world expertise about landscaping in the educational setting can also raise awareness to students about the industry. The Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association hopes to incorporate mentorships in schools with horticulture programs to bring professionals with landscaping expertise to the classroom.

Cathy Corrigan, president of PLNA, says many high school horticulture programs have science teachers or general vocational teachers lead the horticulture program at a school, yet these instructors sometimes lack hands-on knowledge about landscaping.

As a solution, PLNA launched a high school mentoring task force to discuss how it could develop a mentorship program for high schools or vocational schools with horticulture programs.

The association wants to encourage a contractor to serve as a mentor in each horticulture program in the state to work alongside the teacher in the classroom. The instructor would provide the book knowledge, while the mentor would provide industry experiences and in-field knowledge.

“By having mentors from the industry come into the school, we can make sure students are learning what they need in order to be successful,” Corrigan says.

The association aims to integrate this program into Pennsylvania schools in the 2018-19 academic school year. Corrigan notes there will be some obstacles in incorporating industry professionals in the classroom, as each mentor must be approved by the Department of Education. To date, Corrigan says about 15 contractors have expressed interest in partnering with horticulture programs in the state to serve as mentors.

“Bringing outside people into the schools to have one-on-one time with students requires many clearances,” she says. “It comes down to what each school’s administration allows, and every school is going to be different. But that’s why we are willing to have different packages for this. We want to be able to get someone in front of the kids, even if it’s just a professional talking to (horticulture students) four times a year. Then, at least someone’s coming in the door to show students more practical experiences.”