In a sea of metal, wood and concrete, an oasis of green could be found at the NALP Foundation’s booth at the annual SkillsUSA Championships inside the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. This booth featured plants, artificial turf and a herringbone paver pathway throughout it.
An estimated 15,000 students, teachers, education leaders and representatives from 650 national corporations, trade associations, businesses and labor unions participated in SkillsUSA.
On June 21-22, 6,094 middle school, high school and college/postsecondary students preparing for careers in trade and technical occupations competed in 110 hands-on skill and leadership competitions.
These skilled competitions included everything from cosmetology and heavy equipment operation to culinary arts and aviation maintenance technology. The winners receive scholarships, tools of the trade and other awards.
“The students that are here are the best of the best,” says Brigitte Orrick, director of recruiting and employee development for Davey Tree Expert Company, based in Kent, Ohio. “They had to compete in their local states. When they came here, they’re competing against the other state champions. We’re getting to talk to some of the brightest trade students that are in the United States. I think if you’re looking for to renew your spirit, and the belief of our youth, you’re going to do it here.”
The NALP Foundation first attended SkillsUSA last year to see if it was a place the industry belonged and saw the number of crossover skills, including carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electrical construction wiring.
“There’s an opportunity to expose some of these kids who may come for construction or may come for plumbing, or electrical and I think it is a great opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you can do all those things within the green industry also,’” says Nicole Lee, director of corporate and talent acquisition at Landscape Workshop, based in Birmingham, Alabama.
Jenn Myers, executive director of the NALP Foundation & senior director of workforce development, says they were welcomed with open arms at SkillsUSA and felt confident they needed to come back this year.
“Part of the reason we’re here this year is to share career opportunities in the landscaping lawn care industry, the breadth of opportunities, the already existing tie ins to other skills, training and education,” Myers says. “And to continue to educate, especially the teachers and the advisors, the importance of teaching these types of programs and it requires being in front of them.”
Myers says that having a big beautiful green space with their booth has been able to help draw people in and tell the industry’s story. The NALP Foundation as well as the Concrete Masonry & Hardscapes Association and NALP members volunteered to attend SkillsUSA and speak to students, advisors and state directors.
“Everybody talks about workforce development,” says Roger Phelps, corporate communications manager for STIHL Inc. “Everybody talks about a shortage of labor and how we need to get our story out sooner, earlier, younger. That’s here. This is where you need to be. You already have the advisors. You already have the students that have an aptitude or at least an inclination to pursue the skilled trades.”
Aside from increasing students’ knowledge of career paths in the landscape industry, the NALP Foundation is also working towards having a national competition for landscaping at SkillsUSA.
“This time last year, June 2022, there was one state doing a SkillsUSA landscape competition,” Myers says. “That was Oklahoma. Now we are here in June 2023 and there are 11 states that are doing landscape competition and so we are working towards getting at least 15. Once we have 15 states doing a state competition, we can have a national competition.”
Myers has worked with Kara Murphy, horticulture technician instructor for Mid-America Technology Center, based in Wayne, Oklahoma, to develop a demo landscape competition and to reach out to the different state directors for SkillsUSA. Murphy says SkillsUSA’s main objective is to teach students employability skills.
“I think it is a great opportunity for students to get an eye opener at a young age of how to be a really good employee and be successful for the future,” Murphy says. “You just give them all the tools they need, and they take it and run with it.”
Throughout the event, students, faculty and state directors floated in and out of the green refuge, often with looks of wonder and joy as they shared their love of plants or asked what the booth was representing.
Myers says what started as a NALP Foundation initiative has become much bigger than that. No single landscape company can make an impact at the event, but with their combined efforts, industry professionals were able to open attendees’ eyes to a world of new opportunities.
“The kids are future,” says Ed Castro, president of Ed Castro Landscape Inc., based in Roswell, Georgia. “To come here to connect with one or two students, two or three, they’re just so excited about it. They didn’t even know that this really existed, either as a career or career at this level. The students are interested in agriculture, horticulture, contracting, it gives us an opportunity to see all the kids face to face.”
Myers says that landscape professionals can connect with their SkillsUSA state directors, their local high schools and educators who teach landscaping or horticulture to promote a state landscape competition.
“The more that they see our industry supporting this initiative, the better,” Orrick says. “I think that’s where the greatest amount of support can come from any NALP members at this time.”
Darby Gilbert, manager of corporate and talent acquisition for Landscape Workshop, says they intend to advocate for a landscape competition at the state level after this event. Myers adds that SkillsUSA is in all 50 states, so there are opportunities to engage in every state and make an impact in their own communities.
“For every 20 students involved with SkillsUSA, two of them will go on to a four-year college,” Myers says. “Seven of them will go on to a two-year or a vo-tech or career center school, and 11 of them will go directly into the workforce after high school and that’s a breakdown of a statistic that meshes well with the types of individuals that we’re looking for in our industry.”
If you are interested in engaging with SkillsUSA at the national or state level or want more information, please contact Jenn Myers or Pam Moore.