We spend a lot of words and pages each month in lawn & landscape focusing on what current contractors can do to improve their businesses and, in turn, help the industry.
But, right now, there are students and recent graduates who will be the ones carrying the industry. They’ll be the professionals building companies with great customer service and engaged employees. We’ve found six students and recent graduates who will do their best to make sure landscaping is a desirable career and a valuable service. It’s not just their high GPAs, but the stories they tell about what this industry means to them. Their mix of intelligence and passion for improving the environment makes them great ambassadors who will represent the industry as a professional one to those inside and out.
BYU, Idaho (graduated 2015)
Major: Horticulture, emphasis on design/build and maintenance
More than mowing
The landscape industry has more to offer than jobs cutting grass. Brigham Young University – Idaho graduate Eric Anderson wants to help make that known to the masses.
“I have a passion for the industry and the industry is moving toward being more known for what we do,” he says. “People don’t realize that when they’re at their desk job and all stressed and take their lunch break, they go out to a landscape and take that for granted as a stress reliever. What I’d like to make an impact on is helping people understand what we do and why it’s so important.”
Anderson graduated in April of this year, majoring in horticulture with an emphasis on design/build and maintenance.
When he first started school, Anderson didn’t know what he wanted to choose as a major. To help figure it out, he took almost every intro class he could, settling on veterinary science. However, after shadowing a vet on the job, he realized he didn’t like it at all. He also signed up for intro to landscape design, which was much more to his liking.
Anderson got design experience at the horticulture department’s campus garden. Each semester students get a project – installing pavers or a water feature, for example – and build it as a class.
“We’re able to get a hands-on experience with the equipment we’re using,” he says. “A lot of schools don’t really get that extra hands-on experience that we got. Like the landscape maintenance class, we’re able to get on a lawn mower and actually use all that maintenance equipment. Learning the proper way of doing it and getting the application correct helps.”
In 2014, Anderson interned with ValleyCrest in the San Francisco Bay Area, getting to experience different areas of the landscaping industry from maintenance to irrigation to sales. His time in California had the opposite effect of the ill-fated vet visit.
“When I was doing my internship, I felt like this is something I can actually do and enjoy the rest of my life,” he says, “It helped me develop my opinion a little more, building confidence in my major.”
His time with ValleyCrest from May through September of 2014 built confidence with them as well. Following graduation, Anderson started as an account specialist in the irrigation department at that same branch.
As someone who didn’t know what he wanted to do when he started college, Anderson says students should go for what they’re passionate about.
“I feel like a lot of people are trying get rich quick schemes that are high-paying, but what matters most is what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at,” he says. “If you like being outside and working with plants, go for it. Do what you want to do.”
– story by Katie Tuttle
Alamance Community College, senior
Major: Horticulture technology
A green industry ‘fix’
The transformation from broken to fixed, from overgrown to manicured, from empty to brimming with plants is what really gets Matt Case.
“I love the gratification you get when you leave a property and you have a finished product, and everything looks nice and in its place,” says Case, who discovered a niche for “repair” when he was a boy helping his great uncle restore cars in their garage.
Case thought he’d pursue a career in automotive mechanics until he got a part-time job in high school working for a landscaper. Immediately, he was hooked on the feeling. “I got that same gratification. The effort you put in just makes you feel good,” he says.
So, Case dove into landscaping and ramped up to full time after high school. He decided to pursue a horticulture degree at Alamance Community College in North Carolina, about a 50-minute drive from where he lives now in Bear Creek.
Like many students balancing work and school, Case took on the course load that he could while maintaining a landscaping job and even adding to his schedule with a full-time position working at a lawn and garden store, getting education in the field as he completed bookwork.
For a year, Case worked as a horticultural grounds worker at the North Carolina Zoo while still attending classes and helping the landscaper who gave him his first job in high school. Case admits the schedule has been rigorous, and after three and a half years in his associate’s degree program, he has a few classes left to complete before earning his degree in applied science horticulture technology.
Meanwhile, Case found an opportunity that meshes his love for mechanics and passion for the green industry. Eight months ago, he began working as a full-time mechanic for Ruppert Landscape in Laytonsville, Md. “There is a lot of variety,” he says. “I work on the whole fleet – I get to work on the small Toyota pick-ups, Bobcats, zero-turn mowers, two-cycle equipment.”
Case showcased his talent for small engine repair at NALP’s National Collegiate Landscape Competition the past two years, walking away with second place Superstar last year and third place Superstar this year. He has also won first place in plant installation and small engine repair.
As a student beginning a career in horticulture, Case says he didn’t realize the variety of opportunities he could pursue. Wrenching on cars with his great uncle as a kid, he never thought he’d be a small engine mechanic, but the path makes perfect sense.
Today, Case continues to work hard every day to continue his education while learning in the shop. “This is what I really enjoy doing,” he says.
– story by Kristen Hampshire
Kansas State University (graduated 2015)
Major: Horticulture, landscape design specialization
Plants over pets
“I was always outside as a kid,” says Molly Palmer, remembering childhood days in the garden with her grandparents. Little did she know that her time toiling and tinkering in the landscape were the seeds of a career in horticulture.
In fact, Palmer went to Kansas State University as an animal science major, planning to be a veterinarian. But the classes just didn’t click. “I wasn’t enjoying it,” she says. “I took some career placement tests here on campus and everything pointed to horticulture.”
Palmer, a recent graduate, says the people are what make the green industry so engaging and special. “Anyone who is in this industry just loves it and is very hard-working,” she says. “And everyone is really comfortable and, I think, laid back – and I really like that.”
Easing into her new major as a sophomore, Palmer dug in and joined the university’s horticulture club, serving as vice president and leading a campaign to create a park-like outdoor space in front of Throckmorton Hall, where the horticulture classes meet. “We knew we wanted a space where any student could go outside and eat lunch or just enjoy it and hang out with friends,” she says.
Palmer had a hand in the design and plant installation, and she led the charge in raising funds, launching a brick campaign where alumni were invited to make donations. The club raised $8,000. “Several alumni wrote notes about what they were doing today, so we got to learn more about them, and we shared what we were doing in the department and on campus,” Palmer says.
Again, it all goes back to good people.
“I’m really interested in working with people and for people,” Palmer says of how she hopes to make an impact in her green industry career. One day, she hopes to work in public horticulture. While she thoroughly enjoys design and the opportunity to work with clients to create spaces, she enjoys a balance of outside time.
She gained some experience doing this during an internship at Botanica, a public garden in Wichita, Kan. “I was basically a gardener there, and I rotated throughout the garden and also helped coordinate volunteers and do general maintenance,” she says.
Before graduation, Palmer secured a position working for Rothwell Landscape in Manhattan, Kan., a landscape company owned by brothers and alumni of Kansas State. “Landscape design is a culmination of art and science,” Palmer says. “You get to work with plants and arrange them in an artistic way.”
– story by Kristen Hampshire
University of Florida, senior
Major: Landscape and Nursery Horticulture
Second time around
Those stereotypes about not being able to make a living as a landscaper extend all the way down under.
“People used to laugh at me back at home when I used to say I have a lawn and landscaping business,” says Michael Sciardi, a native of Australia and a current senior at the University of Florida. “They thought I wasn’t making any money.”
Well, they thought wrong. After four years of owning the business, he was pulling in enough revenue to hire four employees. But he decided to sell it to join a friend who was going backpacking through Europe.
“I was only 21 and I thought I was invincible, so I decided to sell it,” he says. While he may have sacrificed a salary to go on the trip, he gained a lot of good life experiences, and it forced him to grow up, he says.
Oh, and he also met his future wife, Caley, who is studying to be a vet at UF, while on a bus tour in Berlin. After moving to Jacksonville, Fla., to be with her, he decided to go back to school and learn about the business side of owning a landscaping company.
“I just knew how to cut grass,” he says. “I didn’t know any educational value or any scientific terms or what was wrong with plants or grass or how to prune a tree.”
But going back to school proved to be more difficult than he thought. Because he’d dropped out of high school to run his landscaping business in Australia, he had to first get his GED, then earn his associate degree at Santa Fe community college in Florida before enrolling at UF.
While he chose to major in landscape and nursery horticulture, he minored in agribusiness management to get that valuable business background.
“It is extremely important to have this knowledge on business management because running a landscaping business is not just about plants, turf and trees,” he says. “Without attention to the business aspect, many companies have closed their doors even though they were providing an excellent landscaping service.”
Sciardi is currently in the process of starting another company, Aussie Landscape Management, and doesn’t plan on making the same mistakes he did in Australia as a teenage business owner.
“When operating my business in Australia, I educated myself through trial and error when running the business aspect of my company,” he says. “With no formal education in the business industry, I approached all new business aspects with almost a sense of blindness.”
And while Sciardi doesn’t have any specific goals right now that he’d like to reach with his business, he knows he only wants to provide maintenance, plant installation and small tree pruning, while subbing out chemical work.
“I’d rather be professional in three or four aspects,” he says, “then try to do 10 aspects and not be an expert at any of them.”
– story by Brian Horn
Tracy Lee Sewell
Gwinnett Technical College (graduated 2015)
Major: Landscape design/urban agriculture
One crop at a time
Tracy Lee Sewell wants you to eat your veggies. To be more accurate, she wants to design you a landscape full of produce. The recent Gwinnett Technical College graduate, known to most as Tylee, plans to start her own firm as a landscape designer, creating edible landscapes for residents and restaurants in Georgia.
Sewell, a self-confessed plant addict and former elementary school art teacher, always had a green thumb, but she fell in love with the horticulture industry when she and a colleague started a teaching garden.
“That was the moment when I realized how important growing food in the landscape was for children,” she says. “That’s the year that I really decided this is what I love to do.”
Two years and a divorce later, she moved from Virginia to Georgia and decided to go back to school to pursue her dream full time. Although her family was telling her to take advantage of the fact that she could retire in a few years if she went back to teaching art, Sewell wanted to make a different kind of impact.
Not exactly sure what she wanted to do with her degree, she took a sustainable urban agriculture class and realized that she could incorporate food into the landscapes she wanted to design. “I fell so hard that I ended up staying in the program,” she says.
She’s now the campus farm manager, leading a team that cultivates more than 3 acres of fruits and vegetables. The produce has been used by the school’s culinary department and the team is working on approval to sell to faculty, students and the community. They’ll also be donating a portion to a local food pantry.
While she loved teaching children about growing their own food, Sewell wants to influence their parents to make a bigger impact.
“It’s not going to happen just by the children going home and telling their parents, ‘Oh, we ate great radishes today!’ You have to hook the parents.”
Sewell hopes that edible landscaping will not only change the way people plant, but the way people eat and feed their children. She wants to teach people one crop at time, the same way she learned all about growing.
“If you add one new thing or two new things – if you grow it on your balcony or in your backyard, you start finding recipes for that thing, then you want another thing and another thing,” she says.
A busy farm manager, volunteer and student with a 15-year-old daughter, she managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA in her major.
Sewell manages to get it all done by taking it one step at a time. And she’s always focused on her goal of designing beautiful, sustainable and edible spaces.
“I don’t try to do everything in one day,” she says. “I know my big picture and I do one thing each day to work toward that big picture and somehow I do hit those targets.”
– story by Kate Spirgen
Michigan State University (graduated 2015)
Something different every day – that’s life in the green industry. And Zach VanDyke has been immersed since he was 12 years old when his dad bought him a commercial mower. Dad’s advice: Start mowing and you’ll make some money for a vehicle.
“That’s what dad did in high school and college, and for a while he owned his own lawn care company,” VanDyke says. His father would drop him off at accounts and wait in his truck while VanDyke mowed lawns in and around his hometown of Fremont, Mich., an hour north of Grand Rapids.
By the time VanDyke was 16 and purchased a truck, he had about 60 clients and his homegrown operation continued to expand. Then, he secured a job at Mellema Nursery. “I grew to love the plants and the nursery life,” he says. VanDyke worked with shrubs in the retail division, caring for the plant stock. He eventually became the foreman of the landscaping division, running two crews.
When the time came to declare a major at Michigan State University, VanDyke knew horticulture was the answer for him, but a great deal of his learning has happened outside of the classroom. He was an officer in the campus horticulture club as the green industries representative, serving as a liaison between the students and companies in Michigan and beyond.
Van Dyke headed up the donations committee for the club’s annual spring show and plant sale, spending up to 40 hours during the busy week before the show acquiring plants from local companies. He used that type of motivation to earn first place awards in NALP’s National Collegiate Landscape Competition in 2015 in the construction cost estimating event and in landscape maintenance operations.
VanDyke has also taken on leadership responsibilities outside of school. During an internship with Drost Landscape, he managed a crew for a portion of the summer.
The experience at this high-end design/build firm in Northern Michigan turned VanDyke on to creative possibilities in the green industry. “I got to see projects that I would never dream of,” he says.
VanDyke says he hopes that he can bring his interest in systems and processes – finding ways to do it better – to a fulfilling career in the green industry. “Ever since I was young, I have always been very driven, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and learn how to do things different ways,” he says.
“I want to bring my knowledge and experience to think about different, more efficient ways to do things. I think that’s my true talent – and I’d love to implement that in a way that can benefit the whole industry.
After graduation this spring, VanDyke went back to work for Mellema Nursery where he will manage crews and continue caring for plants.
“I just love working in the green industry so much; I couldn’t care less where it is. I can’t think of anything I’d love to do more,” he says.
– story by Kristen Hampshire
Misconceptions and demands
We spoke with landscape and horticulture students to find out how they major was viewed and what they want out of their green industry employer.
By Brooke N. Bates
Some people grow up mowing lawns, working outside and pursuing lives in landscaping. Others stumble into the green industry, often after trying different career paths and realizing the grass may actually be greener in this field.
Though students have different reasons for seeking landscape or horticulture degrees, they’re all passionate about the opportunities that led them here. In fact, they have good advice for contractors who want to create opportunities and environments to attract the next generation of landscapers.
Students battle misconceptions. Of course, students won’t consider landscaping careers until they see prospects beyond mowing lawns.
“When I graduated high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I needed a job,” says Jordan Poole. “I was going to mow grass until I figured out what I wanted to do. It was a huge wakeup call, and I fell in love with it. I never knew it was so much bigger than the neighborhood kid pushing a mower.”
In May, Poole graduated from Hinds Community College in Jackson, Miss., with a degree in landscape management. He’s thought of starting his own business, but first, he wants to work his way up to production manager at a national company.
Friends and family support his path, but worry how he’ll make a living in the off-season. Other students face skeptics who – not realizing the breadth of opportunities – doubt the viability of this career altogether. Before even earning degrees, students battle misconceptions about the industry.
“When I tell people I’m a horticulture major, they’re surprised that it’s a major,” says Conner White, who’s studying the landscape maintenance option with a business minor at Kansas State University. “They think landscaping is just mowing lawns. They don’t think you can really develop a career out of it, but you can.”
When Ruth Morgan told her family she was going back to school to study landscape design after a 40-year career in textile design, they were similarly bewildered. “You’re doing what?” they asked.
“I don’t think my siblings had any idea what scope the landscape industry encompasses,” says Morgan, who graduates from Alamance Community College in July with a major in horticulture technology. “They didn’t really know anything about the design aspects or other career paths that were possible. The misconceptions are that it’s mostly low-level jobs and labor. People don’t understand that it’s a more professional industry than mow-blow-and-go.”
Take care of your team. Students pursue the green industry because they enjoy working outdoors and with plants. But they realize that this business is as much about people as plants – and they can already weed out employers who don’t take care of their people. According to our survey, positive culture is the most important attribute students seek in employers.
“Take care of your guys,” Emanuel says. “We work in an industry that’s back-breaking. It’s nice once in a while to see the boss out there in the mud with us. It shows you appreciate your workers, and that’s the bottom line.”
Above all else, the new crop of landscaping employees want to feel valued. By taking time to understand their motivations and goals in the green industry, contractors can leverage the next generation to tap into future growth.
“I don’t shy away from pressure or too much work or long hours, but at the end of the day, I also want to experience joy in what I do,” says Elizabeth Cryan, a student at Hinds Community College who left a career as a vet at a zoo in Mexico to study landscaping. “The green industry is very fulfilling because there are a lot of aspects, layers and components. It’s important not to lose sight that you’re dealing with people, and people need a warm atmosphere. Feeling respected and appreciated every day is a big deal. When somebody takes care of you, that promotes you working harder for them.”
Make your organization attractive. While a positive company culture was the top attribute students looked for in potential employers, there can be a number of components that build that culture.
- Pay and benefits
Nearly half of the landscaping students surveyed said money will affect their job search – ranking it third. They expect steady pay increases, as well as benefits like health insurance. But it’s not about the numbers as much as an underlying commitment to take care of employees.
“The people out there sweating in the hot sun are making the money for the people sitting in the office,” Poole says. “When you’re just a guy on the lawn crew and they don’t take care of you the way you feel like you should be taken care of, (that’s what makes you feel) overworked and underpaid.”
Students understand that hard work and long hours are part of this business, but they don’t want to be workaholics. As they start families, they want employers to be sensitive to their priorities outside of work.
“Flexibility is key. I don’t want to see a culture where business comes first and family takes the back-burner,” says Chris Lambert, a student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, with a wife and three children under the age of 4. “The more flexible you are with your employees, the more willing they’ll be to give back to you. If my boss says, ‘It’s OK that you need to leave early,’ then I’m more willing to work extra hours, because you’re willing to work with me.”
- Open minds
The next generation will bring fresh ideas to the industry. If contractors hope to harness that energy, they’d better be willing to listen.
“Companies need to be open to suggestions,” Poole says. “I did an internship with a major company, and there were so many things I knew could be done more efficiently, but they weren’t open to it because they liked the way they did things. It’s hard for me to enjoy my work when I feel like I’m working twice as hard to get the same result.”
Young landscapers understand technologies and approaches that could simplify certain tasks. Contractors should embrace this innovative spirit, not buck it.
“Some companies want to do the same things the same way, over and over again, but as technology improves and education improves, the industry changes and there are different ways of doing things,” Lambert says. “A company that’s not willing to learn from recently educated individuals would be a deal-breaker for me.”
The next generation strives to make work easier – not out of laziness, but ingenuity – to improve efficiency and sustainability.
“We like to work more efficiently,” says Chad Emanuel, who’s studying horticulture and landscape design at The University of Wisconsin, River Falls, while working at a landscaping company and serving in the Minnesota National Guard. “We like to work hard, but we will do anything possible to make work easier on ourselves. So listen to your workers. They can come up with something more efficient and less time-consuming, saving money on the job to make more profit at the end.”
- Growth potential
Listening to employees’ ideas makes you attractive to young landscapers, but actively developing employees by offering continuing education and growth opportunities makes you irresistible. Upward movement is the second most important attribute students seek, according to our survey.
“Not being able to move up in the company would be a deal-breaker,” Poole says. “I want a higher position because of my education, and I understand that I’m going to have to work on a crew first. But I want the opportunity to work on the crew, then run the crew, then run the crew managers. I want to be able to move up.”
As part of this career growth, students expect employers to provide training, continuing education and travel to conferences and tradeshows.
When Lauren Ritchie decided to study greenhouse and nursery management at Cuyahoga Community College, her parents worried that the industry wouldn’t take their daughter seriously. They supported her, but warned that she’d have to work harder than the boys to stand out in a male-dominated field.
“When I was in high school, a friend of mine said, ‘My boss is looking for people. I’ll give him your number,” says Ritchie, who was in a two-year urban forestry landscape horticulture program at her high school. “The guy called me and he said, ‘Oh, you’re a girl? I don’t want you,’ and hung up.”
Though discrimination isn’t a prominent roadblock, some students – especially women and minorities – have to dodge disrespect like landmines when searching for jobs.
“My biggest thing, because I’m Hispanic, is that they have a respect for my culture and understand that English is not my first language,” Cryan says. “Promote diversity and promote understanding of different cultures, because different people do things different ways, and that’s OK.”
4 steps to build a great internship program
No matter your company’s size, here’s how you can create a talent pipeline.
By Kory Beidler
An internship program is an ongoing recruiting tool that provides your company with a pipeline for bringing in new talent – it’s not hiring students for a summer job. At Ruppert, we bring in 15-20 interns each year, and have hired 80on full time in the past five years. If you structure the internship right, you can find a great employee, and build a bridge to her alma mater for future interns. It takes planning, budget and time, but can pay long-term dividends. Here are a few tips to get you started.
- Budget for interns. If you don’t budget to source, attract and hire interns each year, your company may have no candidates prior to the season or even worse, you may hire an intern and treat him or her like summer help. Your budget should include visits to local colleges and universities, advertisements for open internships, possible travel expenses for interviews, housing assistance when necessary, payroll, and celebration events throughout their experience. If you just look at direct time from existing employees training/mentoring interns and the intern-specific outings, we spend about $500-$600 per intern. But, if you add the recruiting efforts each year, we spend an additional $600-$700 per intern on average. This does not include their hourly rate of pay for the summer, which is between $10 and $12 per hour.
- Set a schedule. Each intern should know what their rough schedule is for the entire internship. At the very least, interns should know exactly who they will be working with in the next seven days throughout their entire internship. No one wants to show up each morning and feel like an afterthought, or that they are just being given busy work.
- Assign a mentor. Giving your interns a mentor ensures they have a key communicator that will provide all information to the intern so that he not only knows what’s going on each week, but also has someone to call anytime with questions or concerns. An added benefit for the company is the development that is occurring for your existing employee who is stepping up as a mentor, and is growing and developing their own skills with that added responsibility. Ideally, the mentor is someone who is local enough that they will easily interact with the intern on a frequent basis, so someone in that branch is ideal. They should not be their direct supervisor or someone they work for the majority of the time. The individual should also be able to relate to the college age group, so if you can find someone in their late 20’s or early 30’s, that often works well.
- Show them around. A proper internship provides a learning experience throughout the summer. It means the company and the mentor has spent time to ensure they get a well-rounded experience with every department or key position at your company. Also, make sure to have interns spend a few days with accounting, the shop, human resources, etc. It is equally as important for interns to find out what they do not want to do in life as it is to find out where their passion lies.
When all is said and done, your goal is to provide a positive, well-rounded experience that enables the intern and company to decide if this could be a long-term fit. If the intern only has one or two semesters left and you feel they are a great fit for your organization, be prepared to offer them a full-time position upon graduation. Also, remember that interns bring their experience back to their classmates and professors, which can have positive or negative consequences depending on their overall experience. It’s your responsibility to make sure they are positive.
The author is senior employee development manager for Ruppert Landscape.
We surveyed 180 students majoring in a green industry related field about different aspects of a career in the industry (60 percent male, 40 percent female responded). Most respondents were ages 18-23, sought a positive company culture in a future employer and either want to own their own company or eventually work in a senior role at a company.
See the L&L Insider articles for more findings from the research.