How to Attract Young Professionals to Horticulture and Your Company
It’s a fact of life – “I don’t understand this younger generation” is a phrase used by every preceding generation since the dawn of recorded time. However, we live in unprecedented times since there are now (5) generations currently in the workforce – Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X (Gen X), Millennials, and Generation Z (Gen Z) where once there were maybe three. Two people in the same company, often in the same role, can literally be separated by over 40-50 years of age. This compounds the lack of understanding between generations, and its effects are being felt in many industries today.
The green industry is also unique in that we have limited access to talent compared to other sectors. Those who have horticultural knowledge, a true passion for horticulture, and a drive to advance their careers in our industry are becoming few and far between. From 1997 to 2017, there was a 53% decrease in horticulture-related degrees, and sadly, the trend continues.*
We are all working through these challenges at an increasing rate, as so many of our peers, who make up a large percentage of the industry, are beginning to retire. This mass retirement of knowledge and experience is leaving companies with gaping holes in their organizational charts and a terminal lack of leadership and bench strength.
How do we, as breeders, growers, manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers, achieve greater access to labor with technical knowledge and motivation to become professionally successful? How do we fill holes by creating candidates?
First off, no candidate creation is necessary. They are right in front of us. Investment and patience are all that is required.
Awareness of Professional Passions
It is true that horticulture programs are less full of students than they were in the 1990s. However, there are still strong university degree paths producing high-level horticulturalists and ag professionals. Most incoming graduates and young career professionals at these schools have no idea how our industry works and the full range of career roles it offers. In conversations regarding their upcoming or initial job in our industry, their answers are almost always one of the following:
- Greenhouse or Nursery Grower
- Researcher or Academia
- Landscape Installer or Salesperson
- Garden Center Sales Associate
Some passion areas for the young professionals include:
- Developing new varieties that can grow in multiple grow zones.
- Experiencing multiple grow facilities to learn and become a consultant.
- Optimizing equipment and exploring AI and automation.
- Working in data analytics to help companies become more financially stable.
- Attracting new gardeners to buy plants.
None of these passions can be totally achieved in the jobs listed above. The few young professionals in our industry have a hunger for the success of horticulture – if they didn’t, they likely would have chosen a different degree path that paid them more.
Career Path Alignment
Leaders in our industry are frustrated by the lack of professionals, but it requires spending more focused time implementing solutions. If we want to see a change, we must do a better job of getting in front of young professionals. Career fairs are a dime a dozen in non-horticulture degree programs. Having a presence at just a few of the largest horticulture schools in our country gives you access to hundreds of upcoming, passionate graduates who likely have no idea the career path your company can provide them. What is it worth to you to build a consistent funnel of young talent for your company? Cost and time requirements to do this may be lower than you think, as professors and organizations like Seed Your Future, American Floral Endowment, AmericanHort, FNGLA, and American Horticulture Society are already laying the groundwork for industry involvement to help place these young professionals in Horticulture. Participation at the university and community college level is critical to getting the attention of the next generation of leaders in our industry.
Once we have successfully welcomed these early career professionals into the industry, it is imperative to have training and development programs and processes in place to help them grow into future leadership roles. A common mistake often made is hiring new professionals into a role that was held by a long-tenured employee yet not adjusting the job description responsibilities. The outgoing employee wore multiple hats of responsibility due to longevity in the role. Peel the role back to the proper starting point of responsibility and train for the future ability to take on more.
Mentoring programs and reverse mentoring are also excellent ways to bridge the ever-increasing generational gap and build understanding and productivity. The Gen Zer, often with little to no experience, could benefit greatly from mentoring and just knowing how everything works. Conversely, the Traditionalist, Boomer, and Gen Xer could benefit greatly from the inbred tech and automation understanding of Millennials and Gen Zers.
Don’t Complain— Act
When you are not getting any qualified applicants to your job posting, your next employee retirement hits, or you realize that you are severely understaffed heading into spring, please consider reaching out to BEST Human Capital & Advisory Group, the non-profit associations we listed above, or your closest university or community college horticultural program to begin working through how you can make your life and work easier. There is a tsunami of business exits and retirements already happening and continuing to head our way. Start building your bench today, and while the effects of these changes will not be felt immediately, a little work today can make a huge impact five years from now.
*Source: Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science
Ben Molenda, PRC (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Senior Executive Search Advisor at BEST Human Capital Advisory Group. A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Human Resource Management, Ben has excelled in executive recruiting and business advisory and has become an excellent resource for both clients and candidates. Passionate about horticulture, Ben has also written and co-written several articles for major industry publications and is a Member of AmericanHort.