Still climbing

Martha Hill has spent almost three decades readying the next generation of contractors (and their parents) for jobs in the industry, and has no intention of slowing down.

Martha Hill isn’t angry, just a little annoyed. She recently had two students ready to enter her Landscape Management program at Hinds Community College, but then they changed their minds. She can handle kids having a change of heart, but these particular students were talked out of enrolling in the program by their parents.

“I knew that was out there, but that has hit me in the face twice in one week and I am frustrated,” she says of the anti-landscaping sentiment.

The change of heart is something Hill, and the green industry as a whole, has to deal with. Mom and Dad don’t see landscaping as a career, but as a part-time job you do while you prepare for your “real job.” But after almost 30 years in education, Hill isn’t going to let a few misguided parents kill the passion she has for the industry. If she had the chance to speak with the parents, she’d lay out valid reasons why their son or daughter should consider a career in the industry.

“I would tell them that our program doesn’t train a student to be a laborer, it trains a student to be a manager, and ultimately an owner of a business if that’s what their desire is,” she says.

After she made her hypothetical case, along with what she could tell them about her role on the board of PLANET’s Academic Excellence Foundation, there’s a good chance Hill’s passion would have the parents trumpeting the industry on their own.

“Every semester she seems to take one or more students under her wing,” says Allen Spence, a small engine and equipment repair instructor at Hinds.“Some of the students have life situations outside of school that can affect their studies. She is always encouraging these students to continue their education. She gives of herself way beyond just being a teacher.”

That means assisting students with finding scholarships, helping them find part-time jobs and just being there when they need to talk to someone.

“She sits down with every student to determine what is the best educational plan for the student,” Spence says. “I can go on and on about the different ways Martha helps and shows compassion, but I think the best thing I can say is she truly cares about each and every student.”

The beginning.

Hailing from a “really small town” in southwest Mississippi (Bude, Miss., population 1,037) Hill grew up with a father who had a garden “until the day he died, and my grandmother and my aunt lived together and they always had something blooming in their yard, as my mother did also.” Hill would visit her grandmother every weekend, and while her dad was working in different gardens, she would help herself to some of the beautiful plants at the house.

“I would get out of the car, walk around the yard and look to see what was blooming so that I could pick a bouquet at the end of the day and take it home and enjoy it the next week,” she says. “That is something that I know influenced me in my career path.”

Fast forward a number of years, Hill enrolled in community college at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College. She wanted to major in forestry but was steered away from that because of the lack of jobs in the industry in the late 1970s, especially for women. After speaking with an adviser about the influence her dad and grandmother had on her, she looked at what Mississippi State (where she wanted to attend after community college) had to offer and settled on a landscape architecture major. While at Mississippi State, she co-oped with Brickman Group at the company’s Long Grove, Ill., and Philadelphia offices, which she called the best co-oping experience she could have had.

“That pretty much covered every facet of the industry because we had design/build, maintenance, arboriculture,” she says. “We had a nursery – and even a full-service vehicular mechanics staff. We were doing large commercial work and high-end residential work.”

Part of that experience was figuring out how to get heavy equipment into an area that didn’t have an entrance big enough to fit the equipment. That meant the girl from a little town in Mississippi was going to have to direct a crane operator located four stories below street level. Skid-steers, soil amendments and trees, were lifted over a wall into a large planter just off Michigan Avenue in the Windy City.

“That was an experience of a lifetime. It scared me to death, but gave me such confidence in my co-oping experience,” she says.

Hill eventually graduated from Mississippi State in 1983 and accepted a position at Richard C. Griffin and Associates, Landscape Architects in Jackson, Miss. But that would be a short stint before her true calling would find her.

Career change.

Hill was with Robert C. Griffin for three happy years, but knew there would be no opportunities to move up in the company because there was only two other people ranked higher than her, one of which was the owner. She also had thoughts of starting a company with her husband, Donnie, who is a landscape contractor, but it just never worked out, she says.

It was around that time she was asked to be on an advisory committee to investigate the need for a two-year program in landscape maintenance at Hinds Community College. Through her time at Mississippi State, she had developed contacts with ALCA (now PLANET) and used the organization’s model curriculum as a basis of what Hinds could teach. After a year working on the committee, a friend who was also on the committee told Hill she should apply for the teaching position in the program. She initially shrugged off the suggestion, but then started to warm up to the idea.

“Looking back on it, through my life, I taught Sunday school, I taught Bible school, I taught swimming lessons, I was in the band and I taught band camps,” Hill says. “You know how you take those interest inventory tests early in your career? Well, each time I would take one, my results would come back ‘teacher.’ I just never really took that seriously.” She was hired in 1986 to lead the program, which was starting from scratch.

“We started out small, but we had to recruit students, we had to recruit companies to hire our students,” Hill says. “And I hit the ground running.”

She was attending industry meetings and conferences in Baltimore and Alexandria, Va., and the week-long gap between those two stops was filled with visits to landsdcape companies, trying to find prospective employers for her future students.

“I visited nine companies in the D.C. area during that time,” she says. “I just wanted to start some communication with those folks and ask their advice and what did they want our students to know when they might go to work for their companies. I took my curriculum with me and said ‘Look over this curriculum; do you think it's viable? Is this what we need to be teaching’? Everybody put their stamp of approval on it. So it was a great way to introduce Hinds to them and get us on the radar, nationally, from the beginning.”

Since Hill had no education courses in her college coursework, she had to take summer classes at different universities in Mississippi to receive a teaching certificate.

Plus, another college located about 30 minutes away was also applying for a landscape management program at the same time as Hinds. The director of that program was Bob Callaway, Hill’s advisor at Mississippi State University.

“Bob was an incredible mentor of mine,” Hill says. “You don't know how many phone calls I had with him asking ‘Do you think I can do this, Bob,” before I accepted the job here at Hinds. ‘Do you think I could teach this, do you think I could make it?’ And the whole time, he was also looking at getting into teaching at the community college level 30 minutes from us.

“That was an incredible relationship that Bob and I had.” Hill kept in touch with Calloway until his death in 1995, and still takes his advice. “Coaching me along, sharing notes from his classes he had taught at MSU. I have lots of notes that he’s written.

“I have every correspondence he and I ever had, I still have that. And every once in a while I'll pick it up and read it and cry a little bit and also get motivated because he was such a motivator and influence on me in education.”

Time to teach.

After all the hard work travelling, networking and taking classes, Hill found that recruiting students was the next important step. The first couple of years, the enrollment was low with about five kids taking part, but it gave Hill time to catch her breath. When she did, she was able to help a number of students succeed.

“If it wasn’t for me taking Martha's program at Hinds Community College, I would not have been introduced to some industry leaders,” says David Pursell, who says Hill’s influence lead him to discover U.S. Lawns and buy a franchise. He started with two employees in 1998 and now has more than 30 people working under him. He’s also taught with Hill since 1998.

“She and I hosted Student Career Days at Hinds Community College,” he says. “This one event impacted at least 700 plus students and no telling how many other people in the green industry business.”

Aside from a couple students being lead astray by parents, Hill is optimistic about the future. Hinds is working closely with Mississippi State to make sure students transferring into landscape contracting have a smooth transition into university life. Students graduating from MSU’s landscape contracting and management program can take one additional business course and also have a minor in business administration. “That's a great thing for a parent and a student to think about when they get to that point where they’re ready to either go to work, or transfer on and continue their education,” she says.

With the many graduates from the Hinds Community College Landscape Management Technology program through the years, Hill says landscaping programs and those in the industry need to do a better job of promoting success stories. With more promotion, maybe mom and dad won’t fear their kids joining the industry.

“We need those graduates,” she says, “and every member of the landscape contracting and management community to tell their story and help educators get the word out that you can have a rewarding, profitable career in the landscape industry.”

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October 2014
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