Diversity isn’t something that just starts in the workforce. NALP has been actively working to increase diversity among students, faculty and industry professionals at the National Collegiate Landscape Competition as well.
“NCLC is their first exposure to the sheer size and scope of the landscape and lawn care industry, the myriad of job opportunities available, exposure to networking opportunities, and more,” says Jenn Myers, executive director of the NALP Foundation & senior director of workforce development. “We want a diverse group of students attending the event and planning to take their experiences into the profession and we want a diverse group of industry professionals ready to welcome them. Diversity drives ideas, drives engagement, drives innovation, and drives growth.”
In an effort to increase diversity at NCLC, several NALP member companies have been reaching out to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Brandon Morris, executive assistant/interviewer for Pro Cutters Lawnscapes, based in Conyers, Georgia, says they’ve been contacting these schools since August 2022. He says they weren’t getting responses at first but stayed persistent.
“There isn’t enough exposure to this space in our community,” Morris says. “The options and opportunities that the landscaping industry can offer are extremely valuable. We wanted to get them more involved and show them that landscaping has many different avenues that don’t just consist of ‘cutting grass.’”
He says Tuskegee University and Tennessee State were curious about the opportunity to attend NCLC.
“Most of them didn’t even know the event existed,” Morris says. “This goes back to giving them exposure. If you don’t know what’s out there, then you will never know.”
R&R Landscaping, based in Auburn, Alabama, also connected with Tuskegee University.
Claire Goldman, principal and head of design for R&R Landscaping, says they’ve primarily targeted schools with horticulture programs but when she looked at Tuskegee’s list of majors she realized they offered majors in plant sciences, soil sciences, environmental design, hospitality, and plenty more that are relevant to what the industry does.
“Honestly, I was frustrated that I hadn’t connected sooner,” Goldman says. “They are in our backyard, and I overlooked them because they didn’t have a horticulture program. I have some friends who work at TU and asked if they could connect me.”
After connecting with the Dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences, R&R Landscaping hosted several professors at their office, where they shared more about what they do and what NALP has to offer.
Anthony Kumi, Ph.D., a faculty member with the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tuskegee University, was one of the professors who went to R&R Landscaping’s office. He originally wanted to attend NCLC by himself to see what it entailed but his dean told him they needed to go with students and participate.
“I don’t have any experience in landscape or anything, but it turned out to be a very pleasant experience for everybody who went and participated,” Kumi says.
Preparing for NCLC
Once Tuskegee was on board with competing, Goldman had a medical emergency that sidelined her for the fall. R&R Landscaping wasn’t able to connect with the students until February, a month before the competition.
“I suggested just bringing the team to participate in the career fair and observe the competitions so they could be ready for next year and Dr. Kumi, the professor leading the team, was having none of that,” Goldman says. “He said, ‘We will compete.’”
Goldman met with the five students competing and explained what NCLC was and the list of events. They picked the events that interested them the most and R&R Landscaping hosted them on a Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Goldman says they did a crash course through the events the students were registered for.
“I was overwhelmed with the effort,” Kumi says. “They wanted to push us. They wanted to make sure we went prepared. They were ready to throw everything at us. Even on a weekend when they should be relaxing at home, we had to go to their premises for training, which I found to be very touching.”
Elijah Logan, a sophomore majoring in occupational therapy, said he wanted to dip his toes in a number of events to learn more about landscaping in general. He competed in truck and trailer operation, landscape plant installation, maintenance cost estimating and irrigation assembly.
“They were enthusiastic about all of it but particularly interested in equipment operations, plant problem diagnostics, and irrigation assembly,” Goldman says. “We learned how to read a design, operate equipment, install plants and sod, and assemble irrigation that day. I’m sure it felt like drinking from a firehose for them, but they were engaged and having fun the whole time. It was energizing for us. We absolutely loved spending time with them!”
Tuskegee’s arrival at NCLC did not go unnoticed as during the opening ceremony’s popular roll call competition the school’s chant was such a fan favorite they joined the other final four schools, despite being originally disqualified for going over the 20-second time limit.
“The energy from the crowd the first time we came in, it was very powerful,” says Phil Angelo Estrada, a senior majoring in environmental science.
Kumi adds that it was an interesting moment because it was the students from other colleges protesting the disqualification. He says it was humbling and fun when Tuskegee ended up winning the roll call competition.
“After that, everybody wanted to talk to the Tuskegee students,” Kumi says. “Everybody wanted to take them to dinner. It also energized them to compete. None of them have done what they competed in before.”
All of the Tuskegee students said they felt very welcome at NCLC and were surprised by the event as a whole.
“I had a really great time,” says Jaylen Williams, a freshman majoring in plant and soil science. “It was very surprising how much landscaping actually has to offer because they don’t really tell you how many different fields that you can go into once you’re actually in landscaping, so it basically just broadened my perspective on what landscaping was.”
Estrada says he felt particularly accomplished after completing the landscape plant installation.
“Now that I’ve gotten to go to NCLC I can definitely see myself running a landscaping company, but I’m still deciding where I want to go with my business first,” says Cavaun Vasconcellos, a freshman majoring in business and minoring in computer science.
Kumi says the event blew his mind and they are already preparing for next year. He has a goal to take no less than 10 students so they can compete in as many events as possible.
“I feel great about it,” says Trent Desue, a freshman majoring in animal science. “It’s something I’m definitely looking forward to being in next year. I plan on attending again.”
Typically, Tuskegee’s plant and soil science majors are interested in USDA jobs but Kumi says now that some of the students have attended NCLC, it has given them a wider perspective and opened their eyes.
“Now everybody wants to know what it is about,” Kumi says. “Everybody wants to know when is the next one and can they go.”
Kumi says they’re trying to have next year’s team encompass the College of Business and School of Architecture as well, so they’ll have a bigger team.
“We can get students from the College of Business to do the business aspect of landscaping,” Kumi says. “We know we can get students from the School of Architecture to do the hardscape and other aspects of landscape design.”
Anterro Graham, general manager for Pro Cutters Lawnscapes, says they had a fantastic time supporting Tuskegee as they competed.
“For some 47 years, it has been a training ground for future landscapers,” Graham says. “It was so awesome to spend time with students from the University of Tuskegee, who were in school on academic scholarships. It gives us hope for the future.”
This was also Pro Cutters’ first time attending NCLC as a company. Morris says it was an amazing experience that opened his eyes to how many students want to pursue a career in the landscape industry.
“I always wondered how we could find youth to fulfill the next generation,” Morris says. “And the NCLC was the answer to our prayers. Just seeing how organized the whole event was and the expression on the students’ faces. They truly enjoyed being there and learning different tasks and skills that they can translate.”
“Even with all the amazing photos and videos shared by NALP, industry, and schools during and after the event, one can’t truly understand the importance of the power of NCLC without experiencing it in person,” Myers says. “The passion and excitement of everyone involved (students, faculty, industry, sponsors, volunteers, etc.), you can almost reach out and touch it. And you definitely feel it in your soul!”
Next year’s NCLC will take place March 13-16, 2024, at Brigham Young University at Provo, Utah.