Team Building: Recruiting at the High School Level - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Team Building: Recruiting at the High School Level

Photo: Southern Landscape Group

There are many who unaware there are careers in the landscape industry and one way to combat this is by recruiting students at the high school level.

Chris Joyce, president of The Joyce Companies, based in Marstons Mills, Massachusetts, says he has been recruiting at high schools for the last four to six years. He started because he was on the local school committee and saw guidance counselors were pushing students more towards college or the armed services. He says they were not educating high schoolers about the opportunities of our professional trade careers.

“They have no idea it is a career, and they have no idea they can make such an exciting living doing it,” Joyce says.

Photo: Southern Landscape Group

Joyce says speaking to the students one-on-one at a job fair or with their parents and a guidance counselor tends to be the most effective. He says they tend to be the most interested in the opportunity to work outdoors and the creative aspect of it. Joyce says in order to be successful you also need to reach the students’ parents.

“What we’ve done is at the job fairs, we have handed out a flyer that at the bottom has a section that says ‘Dear parents if you have any questions please contact us,’ and we’ll give them a couple names and numbers,” Joyce says.

He says a number of parents have called and they are shocked when he tells him he has employees who have been with him for 20+ years.

In the past, they would visit schools when asked, but now they actively request to visit schools. He says it’s been challenging over the past year due to COVID-19. During normal years, Joyce will go to job fairs, speak in classrooms and talk with guidance counselors to tell their story.

“We as green industry professionals have not done a good job to tell our story, so now we’re playing catchup to try to make this work,” Joyce says.

Callan Dudley, general manager at Southern Landscape Group, based in Evington, Virginia, says they started recruiting at high schools in earnest after not receiving their H-2B workers. They attend job fairs and speak in classrooms like Joyce.

Photo: Southern Landscape Group

Four years ago, they also created a four-day short course for 12 students where they can have hands-on training shortly after school lets out for the summer.

“They spend four days with some of our high functioning team leaders and get hands-on training and real-world experience,” Dudley says. “Then when they finish up if they’re interested in a summer internship or full-time employment, depending on their age, they can fill out an application, and then they can intern for the summer.”

If the summer internship goes well, Southern Landscape Group will offer students who are about to graduate a full-time position.

The first year they offered the short course they had 11 applicants and 10 showed up on the first day. Southern Landscape Group end up having six interns that summer and one took a full-time job with the company after the internship. In the second year, they had 10 students apply for the short course but only four showed up the first day.

“It was heartbreaking but at the same time by the end of the four days, we were like, ‘This has been awesome, they got great hands-on experience and a lot of one-on-one time,” Dudley says.

The third year they had 14 applicants and had to turn away a few who were too young for the program. They ended up getting four summer interns out of the program and two ended up being offered full-time positions.

During the four-day short course, the students work on Southern Landscape Group’s “Dream Garden” which shows off different plant material and hardscape patterns for clients.

Photo: Southern Landscape Group

Dudley says they work particularly close with Brookville High School in Campbell County. This is thanks to their partnership with horticulture teacher, Yvonne Hansotte, who is passionate about the industry. When they visit the school, they’re there all day and speak to six to seven classes anywhere from 10th to 12th graders. They mainly target juniors and seniors.

“The important thing is having someone or people you can count on, that you can depend on at the school system to help,” Dudley says. “The biggest thing is having that support system at the school.”

Southern Landscape Group will visit classrooms once a month and go over topics such as landscaping, hardscaping, mowing, general communication and soft skills like interviewing and resume building.

“I do recognize not all of them are going to come to the industry, not all of them are going to come to work at Southern, but these students we do make an impression on them,” Dudley says. “They’re getting something out of it.”

While students in Campbell County are more aware of landscaping as field thanks to the horticulture departments at their school, Dudley says they still have to start at ground zero because some students still think they just cut grass.

“You really have to open their eyes and lot of the materials you guys have already produced, I use that in class to show the different career paths and talking about our company in general,” Dudley says. “You can be a mechanic and work at Southern. You can work in accounting and work at Southern. You can be a designer and work here.”

Joyce believes it’s best to focus on talking to high schoolers about careers in the industry as most kids aren’t thinking about jobs in middle school. Dudley agrees that speaking to high schoolers is more effective because they have an idea of what they would like to do for a living.

“It’s a great opportunity to have an audience that will listen,” Joyce says.

Joyce says they’ll talk to whoever will listen and take any opportunity they can to speak.

“Even though we might be speaking to someone who’s not ready to work at least if we get an opportunity to get in front of them, we’ve at least planted a seed so maybe down the road, they say, ‘Oh, that guy came in and talked to us, that might be interesting,’” Joyce says.

Photo: Southern Landscape Group

With COVID-19, Joyce and Dudley been unable to visit the classrooms. Despite this, Dudley says the pipeline of students hasn’t stopped. They currently have two students from Brookville working on staff part-time because they don’t go to school every day. Also, they have all their internship spots filled for the summer.

“I hope us not being there not being there this year doesn’t change that because it took us two to three years to start getting the return on investment,” Dudley says.

If you’re looking for materials to help reach middle school and high school students, check out NALP’s resources here.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.