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We recently published a study that showed the number of colleges and universities offering horticulture-related degrees declined from 446 to 209 during the 20-year period between 1997 and 2017 (bit.ly/allenhort1). This decrease of over 50 percent, combined with decreasing enrollments in landscape horticulture at many colleges, means that it is more important than ever to understand how today’s young people think in order to more effectively recruit them.

 

While many people still use the term “millennials” in describing young adults that are pursuing college or entering the workforce directly after high school, most experts classify those born after about 1995 as belonging to iGen (or Generation Z). These emerging adults tend to have life experiences and character traits that differ significantly from all previous generations. Noted author and psychology professor Jean Twenge recently published a well-researched book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

While I think the book’s title is a bit over the top and relies somewhat on shock value to attract readers, one of the excellent take home messages from her book is the dramatic impact that smart phones have on teenagers. Because kids today spend so much time engaged with their devices, they spend considerably less time doing things that we take for granted as part of the growing up experience.

As examples, teens spend less time driving, working, drinking alcohol, reading print, going out to the movies, attending parties and hanging out in their local mall with friends. They also exhibit, on average, lower social skills, religious participation and risk-taking behaviors.

What does all this mean? As I will expound further at LANDSCAPES 2019, you need to adopt a different approach in recruiting and onboarding iGen employees. But first, you have to get them interested in the landscape profession as a career choice.

Message location.

Much of what we have done in the past to recruit young people to the landscape management program at Brigham Young University is frankly not very effective. We spent about $10,000 in a recruiting campaign that resulted in fewer than five students joining our program. In hindsight, these recruiting efforts completely failed to send messages that resonate with iGen students or their parents. What has worked, and cost us essentially nothing – I’ll get to that in a minute.

As landscape contractors, you are not alone in the struggle to attract young people to the landscape profession. Our enrollment in the landscape management major at Brigham Young University, while still healthy, has declined in the last decade. After trying a number of recruiting strategies that simply didn’t work (and a few that did), we recently turned to a graduate student in strategic communications for an external evaluation of how our bachelor’s degree in landscape management was perceived.

This student surveyed young adults and their parents, and found three common misconceptions that apply to our profession. First, potential students and their parents expect graduates of our program to have a low starting salary (both relative to other college degrees and to what they actually earn in reality). Second, potential students and their parents don’t view a degree in landscape management to be as necessary for career success as degrees in other professions.

Finally, online media sources regularly include landscaping and horticulture-related degrees in lists of “worst college majors.” Ouch! While not entirely surprising, these misconceptions caused me some emotional pain because I know many women and men that love the landscape profession and make a very good living in it.

Fortunately, the strategic communications graduate student also recommended specific strategies to improve the public perception of our program. These same strategies apply in marketing your company to young people as a desirable place to work.

First, go where the young people are: social media. This may seem obvious, but the recommendations pointed out that we hadn’t posted on our Instagram page in five months. Why? Because I’m not a heavy social media fan, I don’t generally make social media posts. But from a recruiting standpoint, this is a big mistake. And what should our message in social media posts be? This is a great question, because we all need to reach potential young employees and their parents.

As you can imagine, 18-22 year-olds view the world differently (and have different priorities) than their parents. But messaging on social media (and website content for that matter) needs to be aligned with values that today’s young adults have. According to a 2018 post by Sarah Kessler on the website Quartz At Work (bit.ly/allenhort2), members of Generation Z want a position that is in line with their social compass (e.g., I want to work outside, be part of a team that cares about me, and want to change the world). They are concerned about the environment and want a high-quality day-to-day experience as well as work-life balance. As a professor, I see numerous ways today’s students pursue these priorities.

Other recommendations to improve public perception of the landscape profession include reinforcing social media messages and strategies on websites, communicate through opinion leaders, and reach key stakeholders (i.e., parents).

How and how often you communicate the message that there are great careers in the landscape profession makes the difference – don’t expect to get maximum return on your investment by only including these messages under the “employment opportunities” section of your website.

Members of Generation Z want a position that is in line with their social compass (e.g., I want to work outside, be part of a team that cares about me, and want to change the world).

Don’t forget the parents.

Marketing to your clients is front and center, and you need to similarly market our profession as a wonderful career. And because opinion leaders have more influence than most of us, it is critical to engage a few of these in promoting your company and careers in landscaping. We have a few well-known graduates of our program that are helping promote our major as a great place to prepare for a career.

Because parents have a significant influence on their children’s decisions about careers, it is important to recognize that you need to market to them as well. According to a recent article by Greg Daugherty in Money magazine (bit.ly/hortallen3) both parents and their kids say that a fulfilling and high paying career is important to them. Unless you convince them of this, they will likely look elsewhere.

In my community, you can become a bus or truck driver within 4-6 weeks at a cost of $4,000-$5,000. Advertised starting compensation ranges from $17-19 per hour. In contrast, a college degree related to the landscaping profession may require 2-4 years and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The fact that some landscape companies continue to offer starting salaries to college graduates in this same range perpetuates the bias that careers in this profession pay poorly. The point I’m trying to make here is that as long as the public thinks we are poorly compensated, we will have a hard time recruiting people into our profession.

The author is a professor of landscape management at Brigham Young University.