Future leaders

An innovative apprenticeship program is training desperately needed green industry workers.

L-R: Daria Andrejak, Chelsea West, Martha Pindale, Tim Babikow
Photo © Joanna Tillman
L-R: Paige Kookogey, Dr. Bradley Thompson, Pierce Courtalis
Photo courtesy of ALI

The American Landscape Institute (ALI) educates, guides and nurtures students through a two-year program that accelerates their horticulture career path. Armed with on-the-job training, classroom instruction and encouragement from industry mentors, students earn 39 credits and a certificate in Landscape Installation, Maintenance and Design.

These graduates are prepared for advancement and leadership opportunities in horticulture at a time when employers continue to struggle with labor dilemmas, such as searching for next-generation managers in a mature market.

The ALI, modeled after a European apprenticeship program, is housed at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) through the school’s Sustainable Horticulture Program. It’s CCBC that awards each graduate their certificate. Student groups, known as cohorts, work in the field with one of several participating horticulture companies — located primarily in the Baltimore area — at least four days a week and attend classes all day Friday (except during the winter semester when classroom time is four days a week). Employers are critical to this process. It’s not just for the hands-on experience, as these companies pay for 80% of the student’s tuition. Students are responsible for the remaining 20%, but they’ll receive that portion once they successfully complete the program. These graduates do not acquire any debt from this program.

A career, not just a job

Tim Babikow, president of Babikow Greenhouses in Baltimore, is a founding board member at ALI, as well as the current ALI president, and has sponsored students in the program since day one.

“There’s a big need for people to fill positions like mid-range growers and managers, and we’ve historically had trouble filling those roles,” Babikow says.

But this program helps fill those positions and provides Babikow and the other participating companies with employees who have already received the necessary education and practical experience.

“We get an employee who cares, who’s interested in what they do, who sees it as their future and wants to move forward, not just a job,” he adds.

Babikow currently has three students working for him. And these are paid full-time positions that come with benefits such as healthcare, paid vacation and a 401(k).

“It benefits everyone — the student, the sponsoring company, the industry. It’s a great way to get people kickstarted in the industry,” he says. “The companies who invest in the program — in the students — find a lot of value in it.”

Babikow is a full-season employer with up to 30 year-round employees, so there’s always activity in the greenhouses or in the field. During the students’ two-year tenure, Babikow tries to involve them in as many aspects of production as possible from propagation and planting to maintenance and shipping.

Kayla Goldstein graduated from the first cohort in 2018 and worked at Babikow throughout the program. She came to horticulture via art school and a stint with baker extraordinaire Duff Goldman at Ace of Cakes.

“It was an interesting journey,” Goldstein says. “I was using my art degree to create these incredible cakes, but I realized it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I had an epiphany and knew I wanted to do something with plants. So I visited CCBC and visited with Dr. (Bradley) Thompson. He told me about ALI and within three months, I was working at Babikow. There I was moving around and learning almost every aspect possible, like propagating perennials and annuals, greenhouse production and even biocontrol methods. Part of the time I was a team leader and oversaw order processing. It was amazing to jump into my new career like that.”

During her tenure at Babikow, she realized her art background helped her new horticulture career in an unusual way.

“Art trains you to look with intention. I would notice the smallest things, like a plant that wasn’t doing well,” she explains.

Goldstein says one of the best parts of ALI is the mentorship and support she received immediately. She worked at Babikow for another year and a half after graduating from the program and is now pursuing a career in landscape design.

“I can take all the knowledge from my experience at Babikow and ALI and plug it directly into landscape design,” she explains. “This experience means everything to me. I’m so thankful I had that opportunity. It’s such an amazing industry.”

Finding the right fit

Martha Pindale, executive director of ALI, is one of the cornerstones of the program. She recruits students and employers, and acts as a liaison between ALI and the college. When recruiting employers, they must be serious about wanting to promote the industry and keep it healthy, she says.

“Most of our participating companies see the bigger picture. They just want to nurture, foster, educate and help,” she adds.

There has been a total of 27 employers participating over the past five years, including production growers, landscape firms, rewholesalers and public gardens.

When prospective students express interest in horticulture, Pindale and members of the ALI education committee conduct interviews and try to understand their goals and what brought them to the industry. She also makes sure they have a realistic grasp of the industry — working in all types of weather or doing laborious tasks, for instance.

“Some of them have already done their homework and they’re really excited about getting into horticulture,” she says.

The next step is helping them find a partnering company for employment and sponsorship. After researching the companies, students provide Pindale with their top three or so favorites and she arranges interviews. The initial period of employment allows time for the student to determine that they are committed to the program and time for employers to determine that the student has the aptitude, interest and dedication to continue with the program, Pindale says.

Some of the paths ALI students take to get to horticulture are interesting. Some graduated high school a couple of years ago; some already have four-year degrees and want a career change; some are several years out of school and looking for a fresh start.

“We’re bringing in some new people who may not have even considered the green industry for a career,” she says.

Kevin Zarubaiko from the fifth cohort, which graduates next May, is the perfect example. He’d been in college for a year and a half studying for a career in cybersecurity when it hit him — he did not want to spend his life sitting in an office day in and day out. He thought back to his time as an Eagle Scout and how many of those projects were focused outdoors and in gardens.

“I’ve always liked the outdoors and working outside seemed a lot better than being in an office,” he recalls.

Serendipitously, Pindale is a family friend and told him about ALI.

He was placed with Maxalea Inc., a landscape maintenance company. So far, he says the plant ID class has been the most helpful at work because it helps him communicate better with the sales staff.

Alex Wiitala, a second cohort graduate, also took a roundabout way into the horticulture industry. She received an associate degree in history and worked at Best Buy, eventually making it into management. But she wasn’t happy in retail. In what sounds like the plot to a movie, Wiitala saved up to buy a truck and an RV and took a three-month road trip across much of the U.S.

“Like any good road trip, you’re supposed to have a revelation,” she says with a chuckle. “I started researching ‘jobs working with nature’ to see what I could do. When I got home, I talked to my parents, and my dad said he knew someone who used to own a nursery. It was Martha (Pindale) and her husband.”

From the time she came home on a Sunday to the next Friday, she had an interview for an internship at the Hampton National Historic Site, which is part of the National Park System.

There she apprenticed with Brooke Derr, who was the site’s horticulturist at the time.

Now she’s working at Lauren’s Garden Service, which specializes in eco-landscapes and native plants.

“I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for ALI,” she says. “I have an actual career path, and the fact I’m enjoying it is huge.”

Four cohorts have graduated with a total of 30 students. The fourth, and most recent cohort, graduated in May.
Photo by Joanna Tillman

Filling workforce gaps

Having a varied student base makes the program even more special, says Alan Jones, president of Manor View Farm in Monkton, Maryland, and vice president of the ALI Board of Directors. He’s been involved with ALI since its inception. ALI is also a solution for the unfortunate trend of horticulture schools getting budgets slashed or even shuttering their doors.

ALI will also help green-industry companies overcome some of the staffing issues they’ve faced over the years.

“As the H2B program becomes less reliable for instance, this is a program that can help fill some of the gaps in the workforce,” Jones says.

Manor View currently employs one ALI student who graduates this May.

“We’ve tried to give him experience throughout the nursery. And what he’s learning in the classroom basically formalizes that work experience, and that will help us retain him. He’s going to be a great team member moving forward,” Jones says.

Chelsea West, who graduated in 2020 from the second cohort, taught third and fourth graders for a while, but eventually decided to make a career change. When West’s husband was transferred to Maryland, she had a friend in the area who was an extension agent. After a brief visit, her friend suggested she research ALI.

“I knew I wanted to get into horticulture and work with plants, but I didn’t know where to start,” West recalls.

In the program, West worked in the perennial department at Greenstreet Gardens. Her big “aha” moment came during a field trip to the Rodale Institute.

“I saw this greenhouse full of tomatoes and I had this epiphany. I grew some of those same exact tomatoes at work, and it was just like coming full circle,” she says. “I knew I wanted to help grow plants like this and give back to the community one day. I want to educate people on how cool these plants are.”

West now she works at Cavano’s Perennials in the propagation department, and she knows she made the right career choice.

“I owe everything to ALI and couldn’t have changed careers without them,” she says.

She thinks ALI is the perfect solution to getting people interested in horticulture careers. But for companies and organizations outside the Baltimore area, she suggests having “young (industry) faces talking about careers in horticulture to high school students and recent graduates and making sure young people’s voices from the industry are being heard.”

Environmental inspiration

The next generation will be attracted to the industry with the increased interest in combatting climate change through horticulture, the study of ecological landscapes and restorations, and the continuation of street tree programs in major cities, predicts Dr. Bradley Thompson, CCBC’s Sustainable Horticulture program director.

The ALI program teaches the benefits of planting natives and protecting ecological systems, Thompson says, which is a critical issue that’s being addressed in horticulture worldwide. Those ecological protection issues are hyperlocal with the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

“There are problems with stormwater management, which is killing the bay,” he says. “To address such issues, ALI graduates not only earn a certificate in Landscape Installation, Maintenance and Design; they also earn a Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional certificate.”

David Zimmerman, a landscape designer and graduate of the first cohort, found the ecology of landscape systems fascinating and it changed his way of thinking, despite being in the landscape industry for about a decade prior to joining ALI. And it was ALI’s Intro to Sustainable Horticulture class that piqued his interest.

“It was my favorite class, and it was the best class for me since it represented an alternative base of knowledge that’s starting to catch on in the industry,” he says. “The yard is part of ecology, and I became more aware of that fact and reassessed the sense of the landscape aesthetic. It made me think differently about what a landscape is. A landscape is a pollinator habitat, it’s a restoration project, it’s for stormwater management. There’s more involved than just putting shrubs around the house. It’s about putting function in the land.”

To date, three cohorts have graduated with a total of 23 students, and ALI’s fourth cohort of eight students is slated to graduate in May. There are seven students in the fifth cohort and ALI is actively recruiting for the sixth cohort.

The program’s scholarships and management expenses are made possible through donations from individuals, businesses, organizations and grants.

The author is editorial director of Greenhouse Management, Lawn & Landscape’s sister publication.

September 2022
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