With the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) came the cancelation of this year’s National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC), but instead of letting this event fall to the wayside, the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) decided to host it virtually.
With 40 companies, 38 schools and 154 students participating, NALP says the event could definitely be deemed a success, even if it was a bit different than what participants are typically used to.
“We were pleasantly surprised at the sense of community we felt during the virtual event,” says Jennifer Myers, senior director of workforce development for NALP. “Nothing can ever replace the feeling of all being together, but between watching how attendees navigated the online platform, participating in public chats and catching up with friends and sponsors in private chats, we felt a sense of togetherness and positivity, even knowing we were all participating from our own homes.”
Meeting and greeting
Alana Cornelison, senior at North Carolina State University majoring in horticulture with a concentration in landscape design, has attended NCLC once before and came back this year ready for more opportunities to network with fellow students and green industry companies.
“There are so many industry experts and professionals and even fellow students to interact with, it’s hard not to take away something of value from an event like this,” says Cornelison. “An event like this opens so many doors and really provides the opportunity to dive into the industry. That community aspect is my favorite part of the event.”
After attending NCLC last year, Drew Marsh, senior at the Pennsylvania College of Technology majoring in landscape/horticulture with an emphasis on landscape and plant production, knew he would be back again to take advantage of networking opportunities, as well as participate in a few workshops.
“Having the opportunity to meet and talk with that many companies from the industry is a great opportunity; not being able to meet with them in person isn’t ideal, but this NCLC virtual event definitely helps,” says Marsh.“The biggest in-person advantage that I miss about this event is definitely participation in an actual competition.”
Marsh says that in his time of studying horticulture, he’s found that plant identification is something he loves to do, and the cancellation of the in-person event meant he would not be able to participate in the woody ornamental identification and indoor plant identification competitions. Marsh believes that events like NCLC open doors for students in terms of employment and networking opportunities, as well as help drum up more green industry interest among students.
“I think it’s important for students to get involved in events like this because for people that have passion for the industry, it’s an incredible experience,” says Marsh. “I think with proper collaboration, students in this field could have a huge impact on the interest level of other prospective students to help them understand all they can really do in the horticulture and green industry. Because to an outsider, I can see how it could be confusing to understand where to start.”
“We have always been impressed by the students that attend NCLC,” says Hill. “We have had some past participants join our company and several that have interned with us. This year, we continued to show our support for our industry, the students and the program, and additionally, we met some great students.”
As with years past, Hill says his group talked with students about the field of arboriculture, as well as how rewarding it is to be able to care for trees. Hill adds that they also highlighted the strength and diversity that’s present in the Dallas market, as well as informing students why green industry services are essential, especially during COVID-19.
“The virtual event was a different format, so there was a learning curve,” says Hill. “We didn’t have nearly as much traffic as during the normal career fair, but we had a lot of interest in our internship program. We enjoy meeting everyone face-to-face and watching the events, but NALP has done a great job putting this together in a few weeks. I am glad we are still able to participate. It’s a bright spot in our year.”
Luke Wixo, commercial maintenance account manager with Weller Brothers Landscape Professionals, had the chance to participate in last year’s NCLC event and came prepared this year to talk to students about what Weller Brothers had to offer.
“Our biggest sales pitch is the work we do,” says Wixo. “We are known for our projects, innovative designs and commitment to working for the best. We have an incredible work culture that starts with having young owners who understand today’s generation and giving employees all the tools to succeed.”
Having the opportunity to interact with students from all across the nation is Wixo’s favorite part of attending NCLC, and he says it’s always encouraging to see that there are so many students eagerly wanting to learn more about and work in the green industry.
“I was surprised at the interest we had,” says Wixo. “Overall, we talked with fewer students than we would in a traditional setting, but the students we did speak with had researched us as a company and were genuinely interested.”
Advice to students
Throughout the two-day event, Hill and Wixo say they had the chance to chat with numerous students from across the nation and share their business goals and stories with them.
“I think it is important for students to see what opportunities exist within the industry,” says Hill. “Oftentimes, you go to college and pursue a horticulture degree but have little information about what jobs exist. Other professions are better known. Also, this event is very well-attended by the leaders within the industry.”
Hill says during the virtual career fair, his company did have numerous students interested in pursuing their internship program, and he adds that participating in this type of event gave him a list of personal improvements he plans to work on to ensure he’s better positioned for future recruiting in a virtual environment. Hill adds that his advice to students pursuing green industry careers is to cultivate a personal vision, be prepared to adjust course along the way, persevere and serve others.
While Wixo admits the virtual element did slightly take away from the students’ abilities to network with their peers, he hopes that in some way, they were still able to chat and connect during the virtual event.
“I think the biggest thing for them to do is networking, not only with employers but with other students,” says Wixo. “This is a tight-knit industry and it’s great to have contacts all over to look to and collaborate with. Just get out there and get the experience. If you aren’t graduating this year, get industry work experience.”
While it’s the hope of NALP that next year’s NCLC can once again be hosted in person, Myers says this year’s event still proved successful.
“We hope students walk away from this virtual event knowing, despite these difficult times, that the landscape industry is a family of strong and innovative individuals, who are still very much focused on welcoming them to our ranks in the near future,” says Myers.