Features - Education

Negative perceptions of landscaping are driving down college enrollment numbers and forcing programs to close. Here’s what it means for your company.

May 8, 2013
Heather Tunstall

When Jim McCutcheon was at a critical turning point in his life – that juncture where he would decide which career path he wanted to take – he told his father that he had decided to pursue a profession in landscape architecture. His father promptly responded, “Son, nobody ever made any money knowing about trees.”

Years later, the president of PLANET’s Academic Excellence Foundation (AEF) and owner and CEO of HighGrove Partners in Austell, Ga., is pretty happy with his choice. But he’s concerned about the continued opinion that landscaping, lawn care and other horticulture professions are not careers in which to make a good living.

Even more troubling, the interest in horticulture degrees is dwindling, as evidenced by declining program enrollment numbers across the nation.

“It’s horrible, in a word,” McCutcheon says. “One of the big issues comes from the fact that as a whole, our profession is not viewed as a profession. The more as an industry we can tell the story of success, the more we can tell stories about folks that came in and started on a mower and worked their way up … the better off our image is going to be.”

The effect.
At PLANET’s annual Student Career Days, which took place at the beginning of March, McCutcheon asked a room of representatives from 65 of the nation’s colleges and universities if their horticulture program enrollment numbers are dropping. Virtually all of them raised their hands, including Martha Hill, chair for landscape management technology at Hinds Community College.

“Our enrollment has definitely declined,” she says. “At my highest point, I was at probably 40 students, and I’m at 17 right now.” Hinds Community College had an irrigation management two-year program until last fall, when it was discontinued because of low enrollment.

Even the biggest schools are seeing a hit. Joe Eakes, a horticulture professor at Auburn University, estimates that at the program’s peak in 2000, there were about 250 students. Today, the count hovers around 125.

“Something that’s happening nationwide is a lot of programs are actually being folded into plant science programs,” Eakes says. “A good example of that is Michigan State, which was the oldest horticulture department in the nation until recently, when they were folded into a plant science program.”

Phil Allen, professor of landscape management at Brigham Young University, has been putting together a report on schools that offer horticulture programs and comparing it with information from 15 years ago. The results are disconcerting.

“Of the 464 horticulture programs offered by colleges and universities in 1997, over 120 of these were extinct in 2012,” Allen says. “While it is often impossible to determine whether it was a two- or four-year degree program that was eliminated, it is clear that most of the programs eliminated were from two-year schools. These appear to be particularly vulnerable.”

What’s the problem?
The big mystery is that the landscaping industry desperately needs qualified workers, and jobs are there for the taking for horticulture graduates.

On the job

Heads Up Landscape Contractors are getting students involved early on and exposing them to several aspects of a career in landscaping.

Heads Up Landscape Contractors has been welcoming students into its 12-week internship program for the last seven years. Looking for students studying business, landscape design, landscape management, horticulture, and other disciplines, they introduce the students to the “real world” of landscaping by giving them tasks in various areas of the business.

The Albuquerque, N.M.-based company finds students by going to PLANET’s Student Career Days, and by looking at colleges and universities that offer horticulture degrees and business minors.

“We interview numerous students, and we find the ones that are good matches, the ones that we think would make good employees, and the ones that want to live in New Mexico,” says Eddie Padilla, VP of business development at Heads Up. “We make sure they match with our culture and with our lifestyle.”

The interns help Heads Up by not only assisting with the workload, but also by providing a pool of qualified employees for the company. Several of the students end up with offer letters by the end of their internship. Padilla says they hire two or three out of 10 for management positions.

Based on the students’ interests, they could have responsibilities in sales, maintenance, or other areas of the business. The internship is full-time, and the students are paid $11 per hour for 40 hours per week.

“The hard part (for most students) is making sure that you actually graduate and find a well-paying career,” says John Hatfield, instructor of horticulture at Chattahoochie Technical College. “And we have that and we always have. Why in the world should we see a decline in enrollment when we have the fundamentals in place?”

Hatfield’s conclusion echoes McCutcheon’s: He believes it boils down to an image problem for the industry. “I know that our image isn’t what we deserve. We’ve proven time after time that the landscape has a direct influence on the profitability of your business, from selling houses to bringing people in the front door of a retail business,” Hatfield says. “That gives us a lot of stability through the rough times. And the future looks great – and a drop in enrollment doesn’t add up.”

Another factor is a basic misunderstanding among both students and parents that the industry is “just mowing yards.” While maintenance is a large part of landscaping, it is much more than that, Hill says.

“There’s such a disconnect with our industry and there’s just such a narrow view of what the landscape industry is about,” she says. “Parents sometimes don’t encourage their children to go into this field because they don’t see it as a career path.

“They don’t see the potential in the income that could be made, and the opportunity to be outside and work with people. There’s so much diversity in this industry, it just blows my mind.”

The sentiment is shared by many in the world of horticulture academia. “I think there is just a perception out there that this is just about teaching people how to dig holes and do manual labor for the rest of their lives,” McCutcheon says. “And there’s a lot more to the story than that.”

Cost-cutting is also proving to be a problem – and it’s a vicious cycle in this regard. Fewer students enroll in the programs, the college loses money, costs are cut in that department by consolidating programs or eliminating them all together, and then those programs become less desirable for incoming students.

And as iconic professors who fight for the programs retire or are forced out, they’re often replaced with part-time adjunct faculty members and there’s no one there that’s deeply invested.

Allen says, “The idea that parents and students don’t get it, what the truly professional opportunities are within landscape contracting; the idea that the old type of horticulture is often associated with very low wages; programs that refuse to change and continue to be traditional kinds of programs without thinking about current needs; programs where a champion faculty member retires or where the dean of the college or higher administrators look to cutting costs – because of all of these factors, horticulture is at great risk, especially two-year programs.”

Turn it around. Efforts are already in motion to attempt to reverse this problem. The AEF is aiming to provide tools to educators so they can reach out to interested students, including videos that tell the story of success and professionalism in landscaping careers. And those who are passionate about the industry within academic circles are recruiting earlier and broader – targeting high school kids and their parents, college students with undecided majors, and students interested in business and engineering.

The main goal is to get the truth about the industry out to prospective students and their parents to increase interest in horticulture programs. And that’s a responsibility that lies not only with educators, but also with professional landscapers and lawn care operators.

“Overall, horticulture as a post-secondary educational subject is extremely at risk. And I would say that the industry itself aught to consider that a wake-up call,” Allen says. “The industry needs to help champion the cause of having these subjects taught in college.” There are many ways to help the cause. Allen recommends reaching out to local colleges and universities simply to ask what they need. Professionals can offer to speak in classrooms, at career fairs or at recruiting events to tell their success story and talk about their love for the industry.

Hill recommends steering employees with potential toward a horticulture program. “I think it’s a long-term investment and it’s more of an investment back into the education system,” she says. Eakes says that it helps his students when they hear how a professional has developed their career. “We tell students over and over again, but many times they don’t want to hear it – but they do hear it from somebody who owns their own company and has been successful in the industry.”

Ultimately, it comes down to a joint effort between the academic arena and the lawn care and landscaping industry to change the perception to positive. “We all focus on making investments in our business to grow them for the future,” McCutcheon says. “I think it’s important for this industry to reinvest back into the educational aspects, and make sure that we’ve got a workforce that’s going to really get us to the goals that we have for our businesses.”

With so many companies experiencing hiring challenges, a lack of qualified workers will only compound the issue if it isn’t addressed by both academia and industry.


Hear Dr. Joe Eakes talk about future landscapers by visiting