Behind the booth

Features - Hiring

Career fairs can be a great opportunity for budding landscapers. But what are employers looking for when finding their next employees?

November 23, 2022

All photos courtesy of NALP

It wasn’t long ago Kamsi Gerry-Ofor was on the other side of the tables at career fairs. She’s now a landscape design sales associate at Live Green Landscapes in Maryland, but she remembers pacing gym floors thinking of ways to pitch herself to prospective employers.

“I remember walking through being super nervous and trying so hard to impress, but now as an employer, that’s not even what I’m looking for,” Gerry-Ofor says. “I’m not looking for the person with the highest GPA or someone who’s here in a suit and tie.”

Gerry-Ofor’s first trip to the National Collegiate Landscape Competition was going to be in 2020 as a student competitor with Penn State. Instead, COVID-19 cancelled that event, so her initial NCLC experience was instead spent representing a company.

During the time she sat at the career fair, which precedes NCLC’s competitive events during the week, Gerry-Ofor and Kevin Crawford, a Live Green assistant project manager, met with roughly 30 students. Of that bunch, they estimate that five stood out.

But why? What was it that those five students did that the other students didn’t? During NCLC, company recruiters spoke about what they’re looking for from behind the booth. It’s not all about providing an impressive resume – it’s ultimately about attitude and networking.

A strong why

Ozzie Ortiz is relatively new to the green industry: He previously worked in the hospitality and food industries before becoming a recruiter at AAA Landscape. Ortiz remembers how staggering it was to realize just how many segments of the green industry someone can enter; there seemed like an unlimited number of choices.

And that’s why it’s so important to know your why, Ortiz says. Knowing what you might want to do in the green industry is great, as he says it’s a good sign that you know your goals. But more critically, Ortiz wants to know why you’re entering the industry. Someone can always go from maintenance to design/build, and those skills can eventually be taught. Passion, however, is an unteachable trait.

“It’s about their attitude more than anything. Making sure that they’re passionate about the industry, but also making sure they have that persona, that drive, that’s really going to help on the people side of the industry. It’s not always going to be just about working with plants,” Ortiz says.

“A lot of the industry involves working with clients, working with people. I want them to articulate clearly why they chose this industry — I want a strong ‘why.’”

Jackie Hales, the HR director at Brookstone Landscape & Design in Lynnwood, Washington, reminds students that they likely won’t get their dream job right out of school. So, she urges students to know what they want to get out of their green-industry career.

“Where are you wanting to go in your career? What are you wanting to do?” Hales says. “A lot of times when you’re graduating, you’re not getting into that perfect job. We think that because we went to school and we got that degree that we should be able to get that job, but that’s not how life works. We still have to climb the corporate ladder so to speak.”

Networking can be a critical part of career fairs for students about to enter the workforce.

Staying connected

Some of the work comes after the career fair itself, too. Hales says she’s earned her last two jobs largely because of the networking she did as she advanced through her career.

Networking can be intimidating, or it might feel like forcing conversations with strangers. Hales says she once attended the NCLC career fair as a student herself, and though she didn’t compete, her biggest regret comes from what followed the weeks after the event.

“I wish I would have done better at networking and staying in contact with some of the people that I had met at that competition,” Hales says.

Hales recommends that once a student has built an initial connection with someone in the industry, they should start by sending a follow-up email every few months. Maybe those emails contain questions about the industry, or maybe they contain praise for some work they saw online.

Recruiters from landscape companies encourage students to ask all kinds of questions when visiting their booths.

Hales says students shouldn’t always email looking for jobs, but they should stay in touch in other ways to show genuine interest in the contact and the contact’s company. Eventually, just start emailing once or twice a year.

For Hales, she was able to email someone she met years prior letting them know she was looking for a job. The email wasn’t poorly received, she says, because she had stayed in communication already.

“Stay in touch, because even if you have a good job. You never know if your company will go under or if you’ll need to move or anything like that,” Hales says.

It goes both ways

Ortiz can always tell when a student checks out in a conversation at a career fair table — most often, he jokes, it’s when he mentions that AAA Landscape is in Phoenix.

“For us, it’s a little unique because once we say we’re in Arizona, for some it can be a dealbreaker,” he says. “If they show they want to work out west in more of an arid climate, then we can talk a little more.”

So, the burden is on the companies to sell themselves to students, too. Crawford says Live Green strives to make career fair talks with students more conversational – he wants to see how they’ll interact with you in a work setting, not a phony, overly professional setting.

“It doesn’t need to be super proper,” Crawford says. “That’s something employers need to grasp and that’s something students need to grasp.”

And Gerry-Ofor says CEOs and team leaders should keep in mind that nobody is doing work for free.

Gerry-Ofor encourages companies to amplify their teams’ voices, even if they’ve only been recently hired or seem less experienced than others. At her company, she sits at conference tables with seasoned industry veterans and believes she has an equal voice despite her being just two years removed from school.

“A lot of people really appreciate that. People want to know when you come in that you’ll be listened to,” she says.

Gerry-Ofor says many students came up at NCLC and asked whether they’d be in the office or in the field, but she encourages students to ask questions that might more directly tell them if it’s a good place to work long-term or not. Ask about work-life balance, she says. Ask about the team culture. Gerry-Ofor would even ask about vacation. She knows some won’t like that, but this is “real life.”

“You really want to know that on a Saturday morning, nobody’s going to be calling you asking you to work,” she says. “You want to know that after a few months of hard work, you can take a trip and nobody’s going to be calling you asking about work.”

The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape.