Students descended upon the Alliance Convention Center in Burlington, North Carolina, on Thursday, March 15, in droves as buses and vans delivered them to the highly anticipated career fair that is part of the National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC).
Both landscaping companies and industry brands were present at the career fair filling up the 116 booths available. Tables were filled with candy and various freebies to lure students closer, but they stayed once the representatives began telling them about the job opportunities at their companies.
Many businesses started out by sharing their benefits or highlighting the perks of their location. Whether students were preparing to graduate or still had several semesters to go, they all took advantage of the opportunity to network and discover job openings they were unaware of.
“I want to put some feelers out now,” said Joseph Mills, a junior horticulture major from Virginia Tech. “It’s better to be prepared early than have to be like it’s May and you’re about to graduate and you don’t have a job.”
This is Mills’ third time attending NCLC and he has already received a job offer from Ruppert Landscape after interning with them the summer after his freshman year.
He looks forward to NCLC every year and sees it as a chance for him to demonstrate his abilities to industry leaders. He will be competing in landscape maintenance operation, landscape plant installation, landscape maintenance estimation, tractor loader backhoe operation and sales presentation.
“It’s important to me because a lot of times in school, academics is not really my strong suit, but I excel really well at the practical,” Mills said. “So, it gives me a chance to show my skills to people and show them what I can really do and how I can help their company succeed.”
Meanwhile, for Ernesto Lopez, a junior landscape construction and design student from Joliet Junior College, this is his first time attending NCLC.
The spring 2018 TLC scholarship winner says he decided to attend in order to get out of his comfort zone and meet new people and hear what the industry has to say.
“We’re all getting ready for the gardening/landscaping season so it’s kind of a good energy booster, too,” Lopez said.
Lopez will be competing in exterior landscape design, computer-aided landscape design and flower and foliage ID. He spent the career fair submitting resumes and is hopeful about scoring an internship.
“My goal with the career fair is to just get a general feel of what people are looking for,” Lopez said. “Of course, find maybe someone local and just kind of see what the industry has to offer.”
He says NCLC is important to him because it lets him know that the industry cares as well as provides an opportunity to travel to new locations.
As for the landscapers present at the career fair, many have been coming for years while others have returned after their first visit in Provo, Utah.
Rocky Mountain Custom Landscapes Inc., based in Parker, Colorado, is one of the companies that is returning after last year’s NCLC, despite not being able to recruit any of the students.
“It’s the new wave,” said Jason Ulberg, owner and vice president of Rocky Mountain Custom Landscapes. “It’s the next generation. We’re seeing this grow a lot more, so we want to be a part of that.”
Ulberg says it is mainly due to the company’s location where both the cost of living and the cost of getting there have been prohibitive to potential new hires. The seasonal nature of Colorado has also caused the company to have a dependence on H-2B.
While Rocky Mountain Custom Landscapes was one of the lucky businesses this year that received its visas, Ulberg says the influx of students at NCLC will not be able to help the issue with H-2B, since they are more career focused.
“The kids that are here are going to need 10 H-2B people working for them, so this isn’t going to fix that on any level,” he said.
Kinghorn Gardens has had a little more luck with the career fair, hiring one student the first time it attended in 2016 and then lining up several ride-alongs for next week this year.
“We have so few national events that pull this many people together for a common cause, and I think that’s focusing on education and focusing on students and how to introduce them into the workplace and into our industry,” said Dan Moore, director of operations for Kinghorn Gardens. “That’s why I come. The recruiting opportunities are huge.”
When it comes to how many years BrightView has been attending the career fair, things get tricky since the company merged the well-known brands of ValleyCrest and the Brickman Group together, but Gwen Mellows, a senior recruiter for BrightView, says they have been coming for at least 15 years, if not more.
She says NCLC provides a unique opportunity compared to individual college fairs, thanks to its larger scale. She is also thrilled about the over 100 FFA students coming to observe during the competition day.
“We need to go further down in and spark that interest because so many people just don’t know that they can have promising careers in this industry,” Mellows said.
For Mellows, she doesn’t see the career fair as just a chance to talk to students but also as an opportunity to speak with faculty on what they are seeing a need for and how to better prepare their students. She says the career fair also brings the industry together.
“We’re competing with each other for students, but really we all bond together,” she said. “We make this industry and if we don’t collaborate, if we aren’t the driving force, if we don’t work with each other on the bigger platform we can’t move our industry forward and keep it as prominent as it is.”
During the career fair, Mellows says there are several messages she tried to get across to students, including encouraging them to follow the fields they are passionate about, whether it be irrigation or landscape design. She also let them know what BrightView offers as a company and the value of internships.
“That’s such a critical thing for them to do to be able to learn the different jobs and careers that are out there,” she said. “So, I’ve talked to quite a few of them (and said) ‘I’d love for you to intern with us and even if you don’t intern with us, intern with somebody.’ Do the internships. It’s a great opportunity for you to spend your summers being able to get that exposure to all the things that are out there. It is just as important to learn what you don’t like to do as it is to learn what you do want to do. You can’t know that just from the classroom. You really need to experience it, so I just encourage students to do internships. Every single summer, go after them.”