After the cancellation of this year’s National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC) due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), participants were offered the chance to still attend the event, but instead of meeting in person, the event took place online.
Originally scheduled for mid-March at Michigan State University (MSU), NCLC allows students, faculty and green industry companies the chance to network and discuss career opportunities, as well as allow students the chance to participate in landscaping competitions.
“When NCLC was canceled, we knew people would understand, but we also knew there would be a lot of disappointment, frustration and sadness,” says Jennifer Myers, senior director of workforce development for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). “This event means so much to so many people. It really is special in ways we can’t begin to adequately explain to those who have never participated. It is truly a celebration of the future of the lawn and landscape industry.”
Myers says as NALP began internal discussions about an alternative way to provide participants with an NCLC experience, they started outreach to registered attendees to gauge interest. Very quickly, Myers says it became apparent that students, faculty and industry professionals were interested in coming together, knowing it would be a virtual, scaled-down version of the NCLC event.
“Offering a virtual event gave us a chance to bring a bit of NCLC to those who are so invested, to allow career fair exhibitors to continue to network and build their teams, and provide students and faculty with informative, timely workshop content that can be immediately utilized during this time of online learning,” says Myers.
In total, 40 companies and 38 schools participated and 154 students were in attendance.
Throughout the two-day event, participants were able to explore the career fair and chat with green industry company representatives at their virtual booths. This year, 12 educational workshops were offered that gave attendees the chance to learn more about checking engines, understanding the sales process of a business, skid steer application training, truck and trailer safety and more.
For those interested in viewing the educational sessions, they will be available online until June 30.
Hitting the ground running
In the span of fewer than four weeks, Myers says the event was conceived, designed, built and rolled out.
“It was important to plan and execute this alternative in a short period of time before schools adjourned for the summer,” says Myers. “The standard time for completion of a virtual event of this size is approximately six to eight weeks.”
At last year’s event, 96 companies participated in the career fair, but Myers says that NALP is extremely pleased with the turnout for this year, seeing as how it was the first attempt at the virtual event.
“A huge part of the onsite NCLC is the interaction between students from different schools,” says Myers. “Unfortunately, while the virtual event lends itself well to communications between students and industry representatives, there is not much opportunity for students to interact with their peers.”
As a student majoring in horticulture with a concentration in landscape design, Alana Cornelison, senior at North Carolina State University, says she was excited to attend the event and network with her peers, even if she couldn’t see them in person.
“This event has always been such a wealth of resources, from industry connections to informative workshops,” says Cornelison. “It’s a pity the virus interfered with the in-person event, but this was still fantastic!”
In previous years, Cornelison says she enjoyed the camaraderie that was showcased at the event, and she remembers fondly how supported she felt during the last NCLC she attended, which helped her feel more confident when talking with potential employers.
“I’m hoping to gain a little more knowledge about our industry and the opportunities it holds (at this year’s event),” says Cornelison. “(Within the first two hours) I had the pleasure of speaking with about four company representatives and was pleased to hear how eager they were to share their own passion. Hopefully, I will walk away from NCLC with some solid connections.”
While NALP is still waiting for surveys from exhibitors, Myers says they have already heard back from many students, faculty and industry representatives that participated in the live event.
Luke Wixo, commercial maintenance account manager with Weller Brothers Landscape Professionals, had the chance to participate in last year’s NCLC event and was excited to once again have the opportunity to connect with students.
“Honestly, I felt that NALP knocked it out of the park,” says Wixo. “The platform was easy to navigate, and they pulled this off in a short window of time. I was expecting a few bugs or snags, but overall, the experience was great. Not as great as the real event, but a great second choice.”
Last year, Wixo says his biggest objective for NCLC was expressing to students the huge skilled labor need we have in the green industry. This year, he says the goal was to show the students that even though we are in the midst of uncertain times, there is still a huge need for green industry workers.
“We have been deemed essential in almost all the states, and the grass continues to grow and landscapes still need to be maintained,” says Wixo. “We are adjusting our approach to those services to ensure our employees’ safety and the safety of our customers, while still providing the same level of service.”
Myers says that after participating in the event, a few faculty members and industry professionals inquired about hosting their own virtual event. Myers says that if someone is interested in this kind of virtual opportunity, NALP is happy to provide guidance to help navigate these types of events.
Check back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll hear more about the experiences of students and companies that participated in this year’s virtual NCLC.