Hiring the next generation of growers

Features - Cover Story

Learn how your greenhouse operation can better recruit the next generation of growers currently in college horticulture programs.

March 18, 2022

Photo series for story: ©noppawan09 | Adobestock

As April moves along and approaches May, the current class of 2022 is getting closer to graduating from college and entering the workforce. These students are surely eager to start their careers, and given the current nationwide labor shortage, employers are just as eager to hire them.

That includes the greenhouse industry. So, as growers work to run the best operation they can, what can they do to attract and hire the next generation of growers? To find out, who better to ask than the students themselves and the professors preparing them for their careers?

Dr. Neil Mattson, associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science, has advice both for students looking to start their horticulture careers and for growers looking to hire those students.

On the student side of the coin, Keiya Satoh is a student and undergraduate research assistant at the Ohio State University in Columbus studying both horticulture and environmental engineering. Currently working under Dr. Chieri Kubota, studying deep water culture production and strawberry production using coconut coir substrate, Satoh plans to pursue a career in the greenhouse world after he graduates. “I particularly enjoy working with the substrates in the greenhouse,” Satoh says. “This method feels closer to more conventional agricultural practices. I like the idea of still being able to get my hands dirty while maintaining a controlled environment.”

Dr. Neil Mattson (Cornell University, left) and Keiya Satoh (Ohio State University, right).

A need for labor

Like most industries right now, horticulture is experiencing a labor shortage. Unfortunately for greenhouse operations, this labor shortage isn’t a new development.

“We had a shortage of skilled labor, such as assistant and head growers, before COVID that has only gotten more exacerbated,” Mattson says.

Two specific problems Mattson sees contributing to this shortage are workers leaving their jobs in horticulture to go to other industries, and workers not wanting to move for work.

“I think COVID has made people less geographically flexible,” Mattson says.

According to Mattson, people are “less interested in pulling up their roots and leaving town” and “they want to stay close to their family or current friendship group because they know it will be hard to move and meet new people during COVID.”

Anyone who’s ever moved a long distance knows that it’s difficult enough to start life over in a new place under normal circumstances. When you add in a pandemic that makes people stay home more, go out less and meet fewer new people, packing up everything and trying to plant roots in a brand-new place is even less appealing. This means that greenhouse growers must give prospective employees a good reason to relocate, or work to recruit local talent that won’t have to move.

Starting on the career path

When it comes to job hunting, Mattson’s biggest piece of advice for his students can be boiled down into one word: networking.

“Try to network as much as possible,” he advises. “Many positions are never posted [online/on job board websites], so it’s important to talk to as many people as possible to see what’s out there. This could be through cold calls, emails, LinkedIn and other career websites.”

Reaching out to professionals and employers out of the blue can be intimidating, especially for students who probably have never done so before. However, greenhouse growers are more often than not thrilled to talk to workers entering the industry and who make up the new blood of the industry.

Mattson agrees. “I tell [my students] greenhouse producers are some of the friendliest, most supportive people out there. Don’t be afraid to share your hopes and dreams with people you meet,” he says.

Another piece of advice Mattson gives his students is to get work experience in a greenhouse before graduation. “It really helps if you have had an internship, so you have some ideas as to what types of jobs you are most interested in and which don’t work for you.”

After all, studying a subject is one thing, but the only way to know if you enjoy something is if you get out there and do it.

“Definitely just go out there and get started,” Mattson says. “Start with an internship or any type of job that is somewhat close to the area you want to work in. Start learning about the industry (trade journal articles are a great place to start) and expanding your industry network.”

As a professor, Mattson also hears students express their concerns about going into the horticulture industry. “Students are concerned that the jobs won’t be there when they graduate, or that they won’t be able to take a job in this industry because they won’t earn enough for the quality of life they want.” This concern is understandable, as college students have constantly been told that they need to go into growing, lucrative fields like engineering, computer science and medicine for most of their lives. As such, there are students who are intimidated to go into a field they may be more passionate about, for fear that they won’t be able to find a good job.

Show them the path forward

Asked what advice he would give to growers hoping to attract and employ more recent graduates, Mattson says, “College students seem really interested in knowing that there is a career pathway for them. If you can show them that your business has growth potential for them and if you can lay out what that trajectory looks like, that can be really helpful for them.”

He adds that it’s important to show prospective employees that you can mentor them throughout their career path. “Students are also concerned that they won’t know everything they need to know ahead of time,” Mattson adds. “It really helps if you can show how they will be trained or mentored in their position.”

Growers need to “be willing to train the right, hardworking individual,” Mattson says. “Perhaps you’ll find someone that comes from a different field than horticulture, but if they are hardworking and willing to learn, that’s all it takes!”

Satoh is one such person who came to horticulture from a different field.

Currently in his second-to-last year at The Ohio State University, Satoh’s primary field of study is environmental engineering. He added horticulture as a minor this year.

“I realized after a few years in environmental engineering that it does not focus as much on plants as I would like, so I decided to pick up my [horticulture] minor,” Satoh explains. “I only have a year left in college and horticulture is only my minor,” Satoh explains. “I worry that by the time I graduate, I will not have a strong enough background in horticulture, thus not making me a suitable candidate.”

As Mattson said, this is a common concern among students, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no path forward for those students. The best head growers in the field started out as passionate students with much to learn, and today’s students are ready to work, learn and get their hands dirty. Satoh is that kind of student with “a willingness to work and learn more about greenhouse operations.”

Beyond the job

“Today’s students are also passionate about making the world a better place,” Mattson says. “If you can show your business has a role in that, it can really help attract and retain employees.”

What can growers do to make the world a better place? The Cornell professor mentions examples like sustainability initiatives, supporting local non-profits and giving employees paid volunteer days. Satoh concurs, laying outs his desire to work for a grower who not only provides healthy and quality produce to their local community, but also maintains “an accepting work environment that strives to maintain diversity.”

There are talented students out there who want these grower positions, and there are greenhouses out there who want to hire those students. They just need to find each other.