The 47th National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC) returned to its birthplace this year at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi, kicking off on March 16.
As the Newell-Grissom building filled with nearly 600 students from the 47 competing schools, the energy was palpable throughout the opening ceremony.
Because NCLC is the first step in a long and rewarding career in the landscape industry, NALP CEO Britt Wood announced to students that they can now join the association for free. He also thanked the many sponsors who make NCLC possible.
Roger Phelps, corporate communications manager for STIHL Inc., says they have invested in NCLC at the platinum sponsor level for the past 20 years because the participants are such a good investment.
“You chose to prepare for this event,” Phelps says. “You have chosen a career that can change lives.”
NALP President Mike Bogan, who is also a Mississippi State alumnus who competed in NCLC, says the event and NALP have changed his life. He encouraged students to take advantage of meeting all the professionals here, to consider moving to a new location and to make friends.
David Grover, the incoming chair for NCLC, welcomed two first-time attending schools, Tuskegee University and Alamance Community College – Career College, as well as the many students coming to NCLC for the first time.
The fan-favorite roll call competition, judged by John Deere, was particularly notable as, for the first time, the final four schools became the final five when the crowd was upset Tuskegee University had been disqualified for going over the 20-second time limit. Each of the finalists performed their chants again and Tuskegee won by a landslide, with the crowd stamping their feet and roaring their approval.
Afterward, students headed to the Sanderson Center for the career fair to network with close to 100 different companies. Booths gave away everything from hydroponic plants to landscape-themed socks as they engaged with the future of the industry.
Mary Vales, vice president of HR for Schill Grounds Management, based in North Ridgeville, Ohio, says their goals with attending the career fair are twofold: to create brand recognition and to fill open positions. She says they also use it as a chance to learn.
“What are the programs available?” Vales says. “What are the students looking for? Really trying to spend some time with some of the faculty, some career services to say, ‘How can we build long-term relationships with you?”
While many of the landscape companies and suppliers have been attending the career fair for years, it was the first time for other businesses like Crabapple Landscape Experts, based in Alpharetta, Georgia.
“The career fair’s been awesome,” says Kimberley Lunsford, VP of human resources for Crabapple. “It way outweighed my expectations. There were numerous students from numerous locations. There were a lot actually that were local, which I wasn’t expecting. A lot of people actually came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen your trucks around.’ So that was great that they already were familiar with Crabapple and knew something when they approached me.”
Rebecca Heide, a sophomore at North Dakota State University majoring in landscape architecture, says as a first-time attendee, the event has been incredible. She is looking for a career that focuses on good stewardship, sustainability and green infrastructure.
“The workshops were really informative and really beneficial to me personally,” Heide says. “This opportunity of the career fair is just absolutely huge. You don’t get to do this very often with this many big names in the industry.”
Some students had their eyes opened to all the different possibilities the landscape industry offers, like Elijah Logan, a sophomore at Tuskegee University majoring in occupational therapy. He says while he’s in college, he wants to try other things and opportunities.
“I’m mostly just finding a place that will allow me to potentially have a decent amount of physicality or exploration, in terms of where I end up, whether it be through location or I’m not just sitting in an office, or going around every now and then, to do something,” Logan says.
Jon Puddicombe, a sophomore at Brigham Young University Idaho majoring in horticulture, says his goal at the career fair was to connect with companies across the country so that if he lives anywhere, he can find a company to work for.
“It’s a great opportunity to find what you like, what you might not have even thought about,” Puddicombe says. “There are so many opportunities to do things that you weren’t even aware of.”
Many of the individuals manning the booths had competed at NCLC themselves in the past.
Kevin Paepke, president of Custom Greenscaping, based in Irving, Texas, says 15 years ago, he didn’t know what he was going to do as a horticulture student from West Virginia but was very impressed with the industry while attending NCLC. He says had no idea he’d eventually be at NCLC recruiting himself and there’s no way he’d miss it now.
“The goal for us is to find students that are desiring what we do in landscaping,” Paepke says. “We run a maintenance division, a construction division, irrigation, and hardscaping. Every kid fits into a different category. Our goal is to find kids that fit our culture.”
Custom Greenscaping has an internship program that allows students to experience all the parts of their business and find the best fit for them.
Even students who already had internships lined up, like Lilian Perkey, a plant and landscape systems major with Brigham Young University – Provo, found value in the career fair.
“Researching companies online is awesome, but I like getting to meet people in person, what they think is the most important thing to know about their company and just kind of the feel for who they are,” Perkey says.
Participating companies highly recommended their peers come join at the next NCLC.
“The reason you should participate in NCLC is that these kids are the future,” Paepke says. “These kids that are putting their time, their effort and their money into learning parts of the trade, whether it’s a scientific horticultural aspect or the contracting part. These are the kids that are going to help you grow. I’m 38 and I know a lot, but these kids are so much smarter these days. I’m pretty cutting edge, but these kids are so far ahead, and they just know what the next step is to be the destination company that all of us companies want to be. These are the kids that can help get you there.”
The industry also invested in students the night before, on March 15, during the NALP Foundation Scholarship Reception hosted by the Kehoe Family Foundation. 76 scholarships were awarded to students worth more than $135,000. Kevin Painchaud, a sophomore at Virginia Tech majoring in environmental horticulture, received the Kevin Kehoe and Family Foundation Scholarship.
“It means so much,” he says. “I’m really thankful for Kevin and his family and everything that they’ve done for NALP and for NCLC.”
Painchaud says he is looking forward to putting the sales skills he’s been honing in college and at NCLC to work in the real world.
Ashley Beazer, a senior at Brigham Young University majoring in plant and landscape systems, received this year’s President Scholarship worth $5,000. Beazer says she is humbled to be recognized by the National Association of Landscape Professionals as one of the top students coming into the industry. Beazer was recently accepted into the graduate program at BYU, where she will study drought-tolerant turfgrass.
“I think a lot of people give up opportunities to have their education funded by people who want to help them out by just not applying, so I say apply,” Beazer says. “Apply and express your goals and the experiences you’ve had through internships and I have found a lot of success.”
Another sincere thank you to the many brands and companies who help support NCLC. None of this would have been possible without NALP’s partners.