Finding high-quality labor and transitioning businesses to a new generation of leaders has been a frequent topic of discussion at industry events and behind closed doors in recent years, so we went straight to the source of many future horticulturists — higher education institutes across the country. We surveyed 145 students in different horticulture programs – from general horticulture to greenhouse management to plant biology and turf grass management — who gave us a solid look into their goals, expectations and perspectives by completing a 17-question survey that we conducted in February 2016.
Throughout the following pages, we share not only that research and analysis with you, but also short, post-survey interviews with some of the student respondents. We also talked to several professors who gave their take on the upcoming generation of the horticulture industry and current greenhouse and retail hiring managers who are regularly in the pursuit of high-quality, reliable labor for their businesses. Finally, horticulturist and green industry business consultant Leslie Halleck weighs in with tips for understanding and managing employees from diverse generational backgrounds.
How we did it
On Feb. 9, 2016, we emailed professors at institutes of higher education in the U.S. that offer horticulture programs with a link to our survey on SurveyMonkey. The professors passed the survey link to their horticulture students, who then completed the 17-question online survey between Feb. 9 and Feb. 20. We closed the survey with 145 respondents on Feb. 20. We spoke with several students who both completed the survey and expressed willingness to share further opinions.
Who we surveyed
Click the graphics above to learn more about the student survey respondents.
We were glad to hear from representatives from a wide range of ages, as we know that not all “newbies” to the industry are young; some are starting a second career later in life, such as Darryl Sanford (see below). The next generation of entry-level greenhouse growers and workers may be in their 30s, 40s or older, while some upcoming leaders may be on the younger end of the spectrum. We had a nearly even split between female and male respondents.
Laying the groundwork
Click the graphics above for more about students' majors and work experience.
About two-thirds of the survey respondents have worked in the horticulture industry in some facet outside of their classroom learning, mostly through summer/seasonal or part-time jobs. It’s safe to assume that this 66 percent understands the general concept of the field of work they’re going into after completing their education. For those who haven’t yet worked in the field, it’s likely that they enjoy working outdoors and/or with plants based on the reasons they gave for choosing this industry (84 and 83 percent of respondents, respectively).
Those who answered yes provided reasons why their parents were concerned and the perceptions they had. Here are a few of the most common responses: pay is too low/income wouldn’t be consistent or year-round; there aren’t enough available jobs/opportunities; job variety is limited (i.e. only option is to be a large-scale monocrop farmer); female entering a male-dominated industry.
While students’ academic majors may be relatively general, it seems that many of them have a specific idea of the part of the industry that they’d like to get involved in. The most popular areas involve a more hands-on role with plants. For example, more than half of respondents want to work in plant production/growing, with another 31 percent stating a preference for plant science/research and 22 percent for plant breeding. Landscaping-related fields also ranked well, with just under a third of respondents looking into general landscaping or architecture and/or design.
To see the list of students’ majors, stats about their work experience and why they chose to work in the green industry, check out the graphics at the beginning of this section.
The search for a satisfying job
It’s interesting to look at what these up-and-comers are seeking versus what is a deal breaker for joining a company. More than half of respondents said that they seek out a company with a “positive culture,” but only a quarter of them would consider it a deal breaker to join a business with “poor company culture.” Opportunities for upward movement was second on the list of ideal employer attributes for almost half of respondents, while it was only a deal breaker for a fifth. Overall, company culture-related attributes ranked higher than tangible attributes like variety of responsibilities and company location, and sometimes even higher than money.
Click the graphics above for more about students' majors and work experience.
- Young Professionals Council for American Floral Endowment
- International Society of Arboriculture
- National Consumer Horticulture Initiative
- American Society for Horticulture Science
- New Jersey Landscape and Nurserymen’s Association
- U.S. Composting Council Conference
- Job fairs
- Landscapes educational convention at GIE+EXPO
- Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show
- National Association of Landscape Professional’s Student Career Days
- Sun Valley Floral Group
- The Botanic Garden at Oklahoma State University
- Local Community Supported Agriculture programs
- Community gardens with local nonprofits
- Texas Disposal System’s compost camps
- Penn State Horticulture Show
- Community landscaping with local churches
- Crop Production Services, Inc.
- E. & J. Gallo Winery
- Bobcat Blend compost facility at Texas State University
- Landscape maintenance at amusement parks
- Local greenhouses
Professors weigh in
What expectations are you seeing from students, and are they realistic?
Holly L. Scoggins, Ph. D., associate professor, Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech: We require an internship experience, and a good fraction of students have done multiple internships by the time they graduate. I think this goes a long way in their understanding of real world challenges.
Tina Marie Cade, Ph. D., professor of horticulture, Texas State University: Technology gives them the expectation that an app will give them any information they need. They don’t need to remember a palette of plant materials because the answers will be on their phone. It’s sometimes hard to get them to realize they need to have some base knowledge and that this is the time to learn some stuff and then learn how to learn more later for when the technology will change again.
Students hesitate in choosing horticulture as a career because of the potential for a lower income in some areas. They also hesitate because of the uncertainty of skilled and unskilled labor to have as helpers in the field. These seem like realistic challenges and expectations.
Jim Klett, Ph. D., professor of landscape horticulture for Colorado State University: The nontraditional types of students that have been in different careers know that you can’t start at the top with big salaries. That’s why we really stress internships to make sure this is something they really want to get into.
You have some students thinking they should be making $60,000, $70,000 when they leave here. That’s not going to happen. [Entry level, green industry jobs] are in the $30,000, $40,000 salary range to start out with. Some of our places are very conservative and still want to pay by the hour. Those places have a hard time getting our students to work for them.
What struggles do students have? What are they excelling in?
HS: They struggle with/hate math and chemistry. After two semesters of both, you'd think fertilizer calculations would be a piece of cake. But no. They are soaking up business-related info = small business management and other great courses from Ag Economics. I'd say they have a pretty good grip on how tough it's going to be out there.
In Horticulture, anything hands-on really seems to be appreciated. Students are happiest building, digging, potting, growing, etc.
TMC: The students struggle with the math required for the business and economics courses. They also struggle with chemistry, which is required for Soil Science. I think a lot of American students have these struggles.
They excel in leadership and teamwork. They’re creative and do well in hands-on work. They are interested in grassroots endeavors. They are active in the community. They care about making a difference on campus and in the world.
JK: [We envision] our students to [eventually] be managers at garden centers or superintendents or head growers. … Right now, Colorado especially is booming with construction and housing, and the demand for plant material and growers is out there. There are more jobs now than there are students in our programs graduating.
What career paths/interests do students have?
HS: For horticulture in general, we have seen a surge in interest regarding food crops, self-sustainability, etc. Enrollment in landscape design and contracting has dropped, despite the number of job opportunities out there. Greenhouse and nursery production interests seem to be holding steady. We recently added a viticulture minor that is very popular.
We don't have nearly enough students to fill a fraction of these opportunities, which frustrates those looking for employees and interns.
TMC: They are leaning more toward food production and organic farming compared to the late ’90s when food production courses were almost phased out due to lack of enrollment. Turf and landscape design and landscape management were all the rage until about 2009. With the economic shifts, and the buy-local and organic attitudes, more students are interested in farming again. The turf class has been phased out. The students here at Texas State have always been very environmentally oriented/earthy, but it is even more so than when I arrived in 2001. I’m not sure if I have too, or if I influenced them or they influenced me. It’s hard to tell anymore.
JK: We have what we call a horticulture business concentration, and a landscape business concentration, where the students [essentially] get a minor in business. They get their degree in either horticulture or environmental horticulture, but they’ll have a minor in business. I hear that all of the time from companies, that students need more business [knowledge]. Whenever I take my students on field trips, [hiring managers] say they want business experience.”
We’ve seen an increase in floriculture because of marijuana production in the state [Colorado], they want to know about greenhouse technology, how the greenhouses work, heating and ventilating.” (Editor’s note: CSU does not have a marijuana production program, as that would be illegal.]
There are more jobs now than there are students in our programs graduating.” Jim Klett, Colorado State University
How have students changed during the years you've taught? What has surprised you about this new class?
HS: Brain dump is becoming a problem. By the time they reach a senior level course, they've had several classes covering similar ground: propagation, environmental factors, controlled environment horticulture, etc. But many [not all] struggle to build this into working knowledge. Learn the facts, take the test, forget it. I've seen this trend get worse over the past few years. ‘Teaching to the tests/standards of learning’ in K-12 may be changing how students deal with/retain information.
TMC: We have lots of interest in beekeeping and sustainable operations, native and local foods, native plant landscaping, wildscaping, edible native plants, the problem of invasive species, etc.
The students seem less independent these past few years. Their parents will follow them to campus (which is nice to be able to meet them), but their parents will also call or email me to take care of the student’s issues. I think that parents are hovering too much and not letting their student learn critical lessons that are supposed to be learned in college like the ability to manage their own problems.
The students will communicate on email with problems instead of coming to class or office hours and often this isn’t the most effective way to learn the concepts, so they continue to struggle with the perception that since they emailed, they tried). The online resources like email etc. can often be more of an obstacle to real communication than anything.
Older students arrive as folks who have changed careers and wanted to do something now in which they are passionate. Veterans are enrolling because nature is healing.JK: The students now who are coming in here are a little more dedicated to their studies. They are a little more career-oriented … Before that, we had a lot of them who were just coming out of high school, and plants were something that they liked, but there is a little more serious nature to a lot of students that are here now, which is very encouraging.