STIHL executive says green industry is working hard on its image

The opening ceremony of the National Collegiate Landscape Competition was held Thursday morning at Mississippi State University’s Humphrey Coliseum. Photo: David RountreeThe opening ceremony of the National Collegiate Landscape Competition was held Thursday morning at Mississippi State University’s Humphrey Coliseum. Photo: David Rountree

As corporate communications manager for Stihl, the platinum sponsor of this year’s National Collegiate Landscape Competition, Roger Phelps was beaming Thursday morning. And no wonder: Held this year at Mississippi State University, the 40th annual event attracted more than 700 students of landscaping-related disciplines representing 62 schools.

“Isn’t this great?” Phelps said, speaking loud enough to be heard over the noise of all those students making their way round the concourse of MSU’s Humphrey Coliseum. Several dozen of the nation’s top landscape, tree care and related enterprises lined the concourse for the event’s career fair.

“You know,” Phelps said, “these students … are likely to go home with two to seven job offers. And not just a job – a career.”

As a member of the board of both the National Association of Landscape Professionals and the NALP Foundation, Phelps knows that attracting bright young people into the industry is imperative.

“If we don’t get the word out to young people – and to their parents – about this wonderful industry we love, we won’t have an industry,” he said. “It will die out.”

Phelps said he had been talking during this year’s event with a professor from California Polytechnic State University (better known as Cal Poly) from San Luis Obispo. “He says parents will tell him, ‘Hey, we’re paying all this money and we don’t want our child to be a lawn-mower jockey.’ That’s a great illustration of why we have to change the perception of our industry.”

Those within the industry, as well as the educational institutions with programs in landscape architecture, horticulture and the like, already know “this is a lot more than just digging in the dirt,” Phelps said.

“Of course there is some manual labor,” he said, “but there’s also information technology, marketing and PR – just a great deal of complexity within the landscaping industry.”

Some people understand basically what landscape professionals do, Phelps said, but “they don’t know how we do it or why we do it.” As to the “why,” he cited the wealth of research that shows a variety of mental health benefits accrue to those who are regularly exposed to natural green spaces.

He noted, too, that the industry is among America’s best at “giving back,” as events such as NALP’s annual Renewal and Remembrance at Arlington National Cemetery and the support of Stihl and others in maintaining the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

“That message is not getting out,” Phelps said, and that’s why changing the popular perception of the green industry is a priority of NALP and its foundation.

“It’s a monumental task,” he said. “The (NALP) Foundation is targeting young people and teachers, and reaching out to those in our own industry about the importance of supporting these scholarships.”

Asked about the business environment, Phelps’ broad smile returned.

“Business is great,” he said. “Stihl had another record year” in 2015.

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