Swimming upstream

Contractors and educators alike are trying to find ways to properly teach irrigation methods to college students.

Students learn how to install drip irrigation with a hands-on exercise.
Photos courtesy of Walla Walla Community College

Just a few weeks ago, Kansas State’s Cathie Lavis addressed a room full of homeowners and contractors to give them the basics on irrigation work.

Lavis says – pun intended – that she was trying to “water down” the presentation to make sure nothing went over anybody’s head. The information she shared would give them enough background knowledge to keep their lawns green and that’s about it. But some of the contractors seemed to already know how to do what Lavis told them, and they clearly had worked in the industry for several years and had plenty of experience.

Yet what Lavis could still teach them was equally important, and when questioned about it, it was something the contractors weren’t confident in answering. Lavis says many of them all knew the how – but the why they did each step was lost.

“I always tell my students if you know how to do something, you’ll have a job,” Lavis says. “If you know why, you’ll be the owner or the boss.”

Lavis teaches landscape management at Kansas State, including an irrigation basics course that’s mandatory for each student. They cover as much basic information as she can cram into a semester and it still feels like it’s not enough time to dig deep. Lavis says it’s essential information for any of her students because “pipe doesn’t know where it is.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you manage a golf course, a nursery, or maintain residential lawns. You’ve got to know enough of the basics to field questions from clients and best serve them.

“Of course, you can learn these things (in the field),” she says, “but you’re going to be way ahead if you know the why’s.”

Walla Walla Community College is one of the only colleges or universities in the country that offers a specialized irrigation degree.

A limited choice.

Lavis says her students that expressed interest in irrigation tech work are usually recruited aggressively. But students who want to actively seek out a degree specialization in irrigation management have limited choices: They could go to Walla Walla Community College in Washington or Modesto Junior College in California, which just launched its new program.

And that’s about it, Stockdale says.

“We wrestle with, ‘Why aren’t people beating down the door?’” says Dave Stockdale, the director of Walla Walla’s Water & Environmental Center. “Any of the students we graduate get picked up instantly with jobs.”

Walla Walla offers a variety of programs relevant to irrigation, but its irrigation management degree is a two-year Associate’s degree that’s focused on training people to work in agricultural, residential and commercial careers. The college has offered the program since 1977 and students must be physically present in class to attend.

However, the school also just started its short certificate program that students can take online this fall. Stockdale says it focuses on five key areas: irrigation principles, fluid dynamics, pump applications, drip irrigation and irrigation design. At the end of the full academic year – which is how long it’ll take for students to complete the course – there’s a capstone project that must be completed to receive the certificate.

This could be good for incumbent workers who want to further their irrigation education, Stockdale says. The online component, though rigid in class sequence, allows for more flexibility in scheduling as students can do this on their own time.

Students will send photos and videos of them implementing the knowledge from online courses to professors for homework assignments, so Stockdale says students will still receive the hands-on experience required to learn irrigation techniques.

Most horticulture programs only touch on irrigation basics, this despite the fact there are plenty of jobs in irrigation available for graduates.

Knowing the market.

Lavis agrees that there are plenty of open irrigation jobs, but she also thinks another part of the problem is that students don’t know those jobs exist.

“When most students come into our program specifically or they’re on the K-State campus and they hear about horticulture, most of them have no idea of the opportunities,” Lavis says. “Most parents, when they sit in my office, are flabbergasted when I say, ‘Your student will probably get at least six job offers and will make a good living.’”

And for those who are getting into irrigation anyway, Stockdale says prospective students are just learning on the job instead of in the classroom. While they both acknowledge there are some benefits to this experiential learning, Lavis says students are missing a tremendous amount of knowledge by not taking the degree and going into the field anyway.

“There’s a lot of people that think, ‘I don’t need a college degree for that. Why would I spend all that money?’” Lavis says. “So it’s (about) refreshing people on why that college degree is valuable.”

Lavis says contractors should work with universities and high schools to show the job opportunities available in the field. She also recommends attending events like the National Collegiate Landscape Competition to specifically talk about career opportunities.

Stockdale says irrigation is more complicated than people realize, so they’re often overwhelmed early in their careers as irrigation technicians because they didn’t spend enough time learning about the principles that could be taught in classes. If they took the chance on that education though, Stockdale says he’s confident they’d pick up the necessary information to work at and possibly lead successful companies.

“I think there’s more to it than people realize, which is why people aren’t pursuing (education),” Stockdale says, “but if they pursue it, they’ll realize they can become an expert and a leader in an industry that is still growing.”

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