Planting the Seeds for Success

March 06, 2008
Written by Brian Minter
A Fresh Approach to Spring Help

 Theory and practicality have little in common at first glance, but with the right style of hands-on training, this combination has the greatest opportunity for success.
When it’s time to bulk up for spring sales, one of our most precious resources are people.  In the garden centre world, we all rely on a number of avenues to attract both part-time and full-time help for the spring rush.  Industry retirees, passionate gardeners, folks who want to dabble in the industry, friends, friends of staff, and students are good sources of seasonal help.  One of the resources with the most potential, however, are horticultural students.

When we hire for spring, we look for folks to fill certain positions relative to their experience and skill sets.  We look at filling these positions quickly, but always have varying degrees of success.  It’s either a perfect match where both parties are happy or a mismatch where the student or employer does not meet the expectations of the other.

In a world of expanding needs for high skill sets and higher wages, our industry needs to re-evaluate the skill it needs and the ability to pay for these skills.  In the future we will all need to work much harder to both attract and retain quality spring personnel.

I took the opportunity to speak with the head of a local horticultural school to look at job opportunities in our industry from the students’ point of view.  In B.C., horticultural education is available in secondary schools, and in the post secondary world there are one-year certificates, two-year diplomas and four-year degrees in many areas of horticulture.

Students can take general programs to experience a wide gamut of the industry, from greenhouse production to landscaping, turf products and propagations.  Once students decide on a more clearly defined course path, they can specialize in certain areas.

They can also enter an apprenticeship program or pursue a four-year degree.  There are also all kinds of opportunities to blend their education in many different areas, depending on how they define their career path.  There is a broadly based industry between the nursery industry, Canadian horticultural schools, colleges, university-colleges and universities in terms of skill training.  Most courses have been articulated through a collaboration with industry.  The training schools are, in fact, the mediators between students and the industry. 

Success or failure in the transition of students to employees is based on three levels:  the ability of the student; the training of the institution; and the job management of the employer.  The training faculty will always be in the most tenuous situation by either disappointing the student or the employer by not preparing each for the other.  This is where ongoing dialogue between the industry employers and the training faculty is critical.  Understanding the needs of each, especially the students’ needs, is the key ingredient.

One thing the industry does not do enough is try to understand where the student is coming from.  There is a good deal of practical training out there, but students receive mostly ‘theoretical training’ from an instructor or from books.  It's like learning to swim from instruction.  Theory and practicality have little in common at first glance, but with the right style of hands-on training, this combination has the greatest opportunity for success.  When hiring students, we need to understand that we need to teach them both how to swim and why they need to swim.

In reality there is often a wide chasm between industry and student expectations.  The larger, more business-like and well-run operations are closer to the business model in which students expect to work.  The heart of our industry, however, is made up of truly great folks who are passionate about this industry and have a strong work ethic but have little experience in human resources.  Skills in human resources, however, should be at the top of the list for any business to grow and prosper.  As an industry, we need to focus on the training and development of new people.  We all want experienced help to support our existing staff for the spring rush, but over time they will be more and more difficult to find.  The most commonly perceived threat I hear is the training we do will only help someone else, even a competitor, as trainees move through the industry.  While this may be true in some cases, in the big picture this training helps not only the individual, but the entire industry.  The best garden centre operators I know in North America all say they would rather have the right person with a terrific attitude and provide the training to make them a great industry person.

In an industry that is very seasonal and faces many challenges from the larger discount and home improvement sectors, it is in dire need of quality individuals to take the independent sector to the next level.  We need to work more closely with all horticultural training schools in our country to more clearly express our needs and work with them to help articulate those needs into the appropriate academic and practical training.  The bottom line, however, is as an industry we need to be more professional in the way we handle human resources.  We have a great industry, but we will only attract the great people we need in the future by sharing our passion and teaching them the special skills only we know how to provide.

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