Consistent rain throughout the first half of NCLC’s competition day could not dampen the students’ spirits as they put their training to the test in 30 different events at Mississippi State University on March 17, 2023.
“I knew there was a front coming through, so I came prepared,” says Cody Kettler, a senior at Sam Houston State University majoring in plant and soil science. “It makes it a little unpleasant outside, but it’s still a lot of fun to get out there and compete, and especially when you’re doing the events, you’re not thinking about the weather; you’re focusing on trying to get it done to the best of your ability and trying to succeed.”
Almost 600 students from 47 different schools competed in everything from turf and weed ID to sales presentations. Each of these events was conducted by various industry sponsors who volunteered their time and materials.
“That’s the whole thing about volunteering,” says Britt Wood, NALP CEO. “You build your brand here, and I don’t care whether you’re a small brand or you’re a big brand. When students see you and you have a conversation with them, and you’re building your brand. So landscape contractors have to be here, at the very least, to do that, but hopefully at the very most to give back to these great young people.”
Brands like STIHL have been investing in NCLC for years. They have been the platinum sponsor for 20 years now.
“If you want to know what the future customer thinks, what their priorities are, what their passions are, then you need to be here,” says Roger Phelps, corporate communications manager for STIHL Inc. “One of the best parts of my job is standing here, listening and talking to young people about what their hopes are, their dreams, what their passions are, what they want to do with their life. The best part for me is meeting someone I met 13 years ago as a student who is now the regional manager of some major landscape company.”
Alamance Community College brought a total of 19 students from their two different schools. Alamance Community College – Career College attended for the first time, bringing five of their students.
Josh Strickland, lead groundskeeper and an advisor with Alamance Community College, says almost all of their students competed in four or five events, making sure each student was able to compete in events that matched their strong suits. He says in preparation for NCLC they held workshops at least once a month.
“I was a student with ACC and I’m now the lead groundskeeper for the college,” Strickland says. “It’s just endless possibilities and we get to compete with people we’re going to work with. It’s an amazing thing. I love it.”
At the hardscape installation event, students had an hour and 50 minutes to safely build an eight-by-eight patio with a wall feature. Judging included the structural soundness of the patio, neatness and aesthetics, adherence to the plans and specs and safe use of tools and equipment.
The first and second-place winners of the hardscape installation competition are sent to compete in the Hardscape North America Installer Championship Competition.
“I just think it’s so important to get them early on before they get into their career and teach them about hardscapes and then able to stick with them as they go into their career and mentor them,” says Karyn Peterson, manager of programs and training for Belgard Hardscape by Oldcastle. “A lot of them are looking for work. You can pair them up with contractors who looking to hire skilled labor. There is such a shortage of skilled labor these days. This is just a really great event to help alleviate that.”
Peterson says despite the weather, the teams should still be able to install the patio properly. Some schools came out and tarped their sand the night before after seeing the forecast. She says many of the competitors are already passionate about hardscaping.
Some returning students used the different events to expand their horizons. Jordan Canal, a junior at Alamance Community College majoring in horticultural technology and landscape design, opted to try exterior landscape design, interior landscape design, 3D exterior landscape design and plant problem diagnosis.
“I loved doing the plant problem diagnosis,” Canal says. “I felt very prepared for it from the experiences I’ve had in class. The exterior landscape design they definitely gave us plenty of information on how to go about it.”
Events like irrigation assembly required students to be able to read a plan and successfully install an irrigation system, while irrigation troubleshooting had participants identify electrical and hydraulic issues.
Some students had additional experience to help them, like Nicholas Taylor, a freshman at North Carolina State University majoring in turfgrass management who already owns his own business.
“Truck and trailer has been good,” Taylor says. “Every day I go to work, so it’s just like another day in the life. Irrigation has been good. I haven’t had as much experience with it. I’ve been able to find people to give me some knowledge and some good information I had no clue about coming into it.”
Temperatures dropped to the 40s by the time of the highly anticipated final event, landscape plant installation. Cries of “Go Cougars” and “Go Bison” mixed with the rattle of cowbells as students cheered on their peers working fervently. Teams consulted their landscape plans as they divided tasks and conquered the muddy conditions.
“I am loving the energy and seeing the camaraderie between the schools,” says Grace Day, a senior at Brigham Young University, majoring in landscape management. “I think it’s really fun. In my event yesterday, we all had doubts, but we were all able to sit down beforehand and talk about what we knew and what we didn’t know. It’s just nice to see that we’re all bonding within the industry.”
Many thanks again to all the partners who make NCLC possible.