By Albert Grimm
A head grower shares his thoughts on finding skilled labour in the greenhouse industry.
By Albert Grimm
Labour trouble in the greenhouse industry is not merely a question of minimum wage. We will not solve our problems by trying to find people who work hard for long hours and do not ask for too much money.
Quality of work is an issue that goes much deeper, and this is true for employers and employees alike. Our industry desperately needs to attract and coach a new generation of dedicated industry specialists. If our industry is to stay alive, we need people with a passion for greenhouse work
It is not enough to equip a generation of high school graduates with horticulture diplomas. Textbook knowledge may be handy to have, but much more important will be the degree to which this new generation identifies themselves with our trade and with our industry. If no one is willing to invest into the future of our industry it will cease to exist, at least in the form that we know it.
The dynamics of industries are often misunderstood. Industries are not built by politicians. Industries cannot be created by smart investors or consumer interest; they are built by people who dedicate their working lives to the task. Building an industry takes a critical mass of people who share the same passion for a trade. Industries happen, when people with good education, experience, and passion are working to build themselves a livelihood – when they apply themselves to what they do best.
It is true that industries continuously morph and develop. As long as there is enough passionate talent to drive this change, it will create better and more viable results. Industries slide into crisis when they no longer attract people who are willing to invest themselves. I am certainly not alone with my belief that horticulture is approaching such a crisis situation. An entire generation of business leaders is very close to retirement, and we do not have enough qualified successors waiting to follow in their footsteps. With each grower and each operator that retires, one qualified teacher is lost. We need experienced business leaders to pass on knowledge that was acquired over generations. And we need a generation of future leaders to whom this knowledge can be passed on.
Horticulture schools cannot do this for us. Education does not generate the personal investment that is needed and for this reason this crisis cannot be fixed by the schools. It takes a lot more than academic excellence to build companies, lead people, and drive innovation. It takes resilience and serious mental and physical stamina, as well as a devotion to excellence. Excellence starts with a sense of responsibility for oneself, and this is something that cannot be taught in a classroom. Neither can it be absorbed from a book. Those are qualities that require years of patient mentoring by qualified masters and applied learning by qualified trainees. The trouble is that we are running out of candidates for the job of master and trainee alike.
In the words of poet and essayist Adrienne Rich:
“The first thing I want to say to those of you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves as being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb ‘to claim’ is: to take as the rightful owner… ‘To receive’, is…to act as a receptacle…The difference is that between acting and being acted upon…”
“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you. It means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”
We are responsible for encouraging more talent onto a career path in our industry. This immense responsibility is for both employers AND for students alike.
- Finding the right hires for horticulture
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- Attracting young people to horticulture
If you are getting close to retirement, you have the responsibility to pass your knowledge to the next generation. If you do not teach, who will? The future of this industry depends on employers who take students and young professionals seriously. Young people entering our industry need role models who show them the kind of professionalism that we expect. Good work ethics don’t just happen – they need to be developed and practiced. We need to make room for training in the necessary skills, and this means that we have to let go of our urge to call every decision. We have to create opportunities for the next generation of leaders to practice leadership. The responsibility lies with the retiring generation to teach the next generation how to be professional greenhouse growers and owner-operators.
If you are relatively new to this industry, you have the responsibility to claim knowledge. If you do not learn, nobody will do it for you. You will recognize that it has nothing to do with absorbing information and passing exams. You will need to learn by experience and by mistake. Neither comes easy. Learning by experience takes stamina and patience. Learning by mistake is even harder. You have to figure out how to fail but not become a failure. You have to learn how to fall and then get up and keep trying until you succeed.
In the words of Adrienne Rich, “recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, to show you the range of what you CAN do.” DEMAND to be challenged. If you limit yourself merely to what you find easy, you will never come close to reaching your potential. If self-pity keeps you from pushing your limits, you have to develop more mental and physical stamina. One of the worst possible career scenarios is a job, however well paid, which offers no challenge and no serious obstacle to success. Your days revolve around boredom and around the hands of the clock, which will never move quickly enough. You are going to spend a significant amount of time at work, so it is worthwhile to consider whether a paycheque is really all you want to get out of your invested time.
Excellence is always a voluntary effort. An employer can force you to perform simple and repetitive manual tasks, but nobody can force you to take on a really difficult job with the passion needed to make a difference. We cannot command resilience or excellence from you against your will, no matter the title we carry. Think about it: why is it ‘work’ to sweep the floor, but a ‘sport’ to climb the highest mountain we can find? Both activities take effort. The difference is that sweeping is forced onto us by necessity or by circumstance. The mountain is conquered by our own decision, stamina, resilience, skill and our own free will.
The previous generation of achievers learned a long time ago that gratification can be found when we learn how to overcome difficult challenges. However, someone had to teach us this concept. Good work ethics don’t just happen: they develop over time. If we want to help this new generation of greenhouse specialists, we have to give them room for development. We have to provide opportunities for them to fail, so we can help them learn how to deal with failure. We have to keep doing so until they succeed. That is the essence of leadership: help junior horticulturists identify with their chosen trade. Offer young people opportunities to discover meaningful work and the value of mastering a challenge. If we succeed, we will have done more for their education than any school or college will ever be able to offer.
What about money? Money alone would not do anything to solve our crisis. People don’t leave a job because of money. People leave bad bosses and boring work. It is not so difficult to create a work environment which reduces boredom and increases engagement. Think about it: if someone who earns minimum wage has the choice between interesting work and a job that offers eight hours of boredom, which one would they pick? If the same worker gets a sense of contribution, would that not make a difference?
Highly skilled people create their own incentive for income. No employer in their right mind is going to let a valuable key person walk away over a few dollars a month. The opposite is also true: no horticulturist in their right mind is going to walk away from an employer who offers opportunities to apply themselves, and who supports them in the development of a meaningful career.
I am going to sum this up into an old-fashioned platitude: ‘We ARE what we DO’. We can help a new generation identify with our trade and proudly introduce themselves as horticulture specialists. By doing this, our industry will not only stay alive but thrive. Students and employers share a common responsibility for the future of the greenhouse sector. We cannot pass this responsibility for the future off to the schools. We all have opportunity and responsibility to improve the labour situation and the outcome of education in this industry. The greenhouse industry has to get involved and we have to take this issue seriously.
This is the shortened text of a lecture from Greenhouse Canada’s Grower Day on June 21, 2017. It has been edited for print.
Albert Grimm is the head grower at Jeffery’s Greenhouses. He can be reached at email@example.com.