Floriculture’s Future: Do Internship Programs Matter?

If you’re a student (or anyone for that matter) weighing a career in floriculture, employment opportunities seem to be skyrocketing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has pegged the “nursery and greenhouse industry” as the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture. According to the USDA, sales at nursery and greenhouse operations grew by 43 percent from 1992 to 1997. Likewise, job demand in the industry is increasing at a rapid pace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5,000 people were employed as nursery or greenhouse managers in 1998. The demand for nursery and greenhouse managers is expected to increase by 15.1 percent by 2008.

Likewise, demand for landscape architects is also expected to increase by 14.5 percent to 25,000 jobs. Agricultural science jobs are expected to rise 10.9 percent to 24,000.

And these occupations represent only a fraction of the jobs (ranging from retail and marketing to distribution and specialty consulting) available within or in support of the floriculture industry.

This is good news for students pursuing degrees in horticulture or related fields. But from the standpoint of today’s floricultural business owners, this employment “seller’s market” is worrisome to say the least. Although the hort departments of the nation’s leading universities are conferring degrees on students more knowledgeable and better-prepared than ever before (see “Floriculture’s Recruiting Woes: Who Should Shoulder The Blame?” on page 22), the demand for entry-level floricultural professionals is steadily outstripping the available pool of qualified applicants.

The intent of this article is to focus on internship programs, a key component of the overall process by which college students who are at least willing to consider careers in floriculture are motivated, trained and ultimately guided into positions within the industry best suited to their strengths and interests.


Internship: the real-world classroom

The general sentiment among industry and academia is that the Land Grant universities, as well as most other universities and community colleges offering hort and related degrees, adequately prepare students to take on leadership roles within the industry.

“The students we’ve had experience with are definitely well-trained,” says Dennis Crum, lead grower at Four Star Greenhouse, Carleton, Mich. (Melinda Froning, GPN’s Intern of the Year awardee, served her internship at Four Star.) Crum has worked with student interns from a number of universities, including Michigan State University and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

However, both industry and academia view the university experience as only half of the equation. The other half is hands-on experience in a production greenhouse, a breeding facility or other “real-world” workplace.

Of course, a significant component of college horticultural coursework is conducted in greenhouse “classrooms.” Likewise, numerous students receive valuable exposure through part-time work in garden centers and greenhouses, through volunteer work at local botanical gardens, and through participation in horticultural clubs or associations. Nonetheless, virtually all hort professors stress that these outlets cannot even begin to supplant the value of an internship.

“Classroom and internship experiences reinforce each other,” says Terri Starman, associate professor of floriculture at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. “Students learn the same stuff but with a different method. It is one thing to tell students about transplanting or plug production, but they need to be able to see it to believe it.”

Speaking for the industry, Dennis Crum of Four Star asserts that what’s taught at school is not necessarily the way things are done in commercial greenhouse operations. “Each greenhouse does it a little bit differently,” he says.

Citing the examples of plant nutrition and pest control, Crum explains that an entry-level production professional from any good hort program will have a good grasp of the fundamentals. What a new employee without experience in a commercial facility might not understand is that procedures or regimens can be “bent” considerably (to fit the programs of individual operations) with no loss of effectiveness or integrity. “Students should know the basics, but they also should be open-minded to modification,” says Crum.

Internships also can boost the appeal of students as potential hires. “If you want to get out of school and work as a regular greenhouse employee someplace, that’s one thing,” says Robert Berghage, assistant professor of floriculture at Penn State University, “but you must have experience in the greenhouse to move into managerial positions.”

Interns also have a leg up in the job search by virtue of a venerable tradition: Many employers like to hire their former interns. For instance, two managers at Four Star Greenhouses are former Four Star interns.

Ball Horticultural Co., noted for its long-running, well-managed intern program, also views interns as potential job candidates. “We have a record of hiring a number of our summer interns after they graduate,” says Marvin Miller, market research manager at Ball.


A quality internship

Few would disagree that internship programs are vital not only to aspiring floricultural professionals but to the floriculture industry. Few would deny that the number of intern programs must be increased. However, it is not enough to simply increase the number of intern programs. A student whose internship involves little more than performing grunt work for a grower seeking cheap labor gains little of value from the experience.

Creating a quality internship requires time, effort and money. The best programs are those in which students perform a wide variety of tasks that include real responsibilities.

“A lot of times students end up just potting plants, when what they expected was a well-rounded experience,” says Starman. “They want to see a little bit of everything: marketing, management, propagation – all aspects of the business.”

Acknowledging that “grunt-work” internships can be attributed in some cases to overburdened intern supervisors, Miller asserts that private industry must be more receptive to the true concept of an internship, which is to provide students with a quality experience. “Stuffing envelopes is not part of a good horticulture internship,” he notes, “and a lot of times, that’s what students are told to do.”

At Ball, interns are respected as “valuable resources” and are often assigned strategic projects. For instance, interns at Ball have worked on breeding, seed quality, market research and biotechnology projects. One intern usually works on Ball’s field trial grounds alongside the trial manager, recording varietal and performance information. The data is incorporated into Ball product catalogs and sales presentation kits. The intern’s impact in this important process is tangible.

Four Star has a very structured internship program designed, says Crum, to “ensure that interns get a broad feel for how the business works.” During a spring-to-summer 15-week internship, interns work in shipping, seeding, the lab, the poinsettia range and the office. For example, weeks two and three are focused on pest management. An intern performs insect counts with sticky cards, does soil and tissue testing, and learns about other IPM practices. Interns at Four Star also have responsibility for a half acre of Four Star’s production range.


Should internships be mandatory?

While uniformly praising the value of intern programs, universities nonetheless disagree on whether an internship should be a mandatory requirement for graduation.

At schools such as the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Michigan State University, students must serve an internship to receive a degree. “A required internship guarantees that all students get practical experience, which helps to put the whole education in perspective,” says Starman at the University of Tennessee.

However, at schools such as Penn State, internships are recommended but not required for graduation. Berghage at Penn State points out that setting up and administering an effective internship program can be burdensome for both the university and the industry. “The key to an internship program is that it must be well-managed,” he says. “It requires lots of time, money and effort by faculty and by university administrators, but also on the industry side.”

Jim Faust, an assistant professor at Clemson University, feels that internships provide a valuable component to a student’s overall floriculture education, but he adds that internships are not required at Clemson. He notes that the horticulture department conducts annual exit interviews with graduating students. University officials contend that most hort students say they are getting practical experience on their own. “Since students have been finding their own opportunities, we decided we didn’t want to add any more bureaucracy or hoops to jump through,” says Faust.

However, Clemson did learn something else through its exit interviews that made the school think twice, Faust adds. “Students didn’t feel they were getting enough practical experience in the classroom.”

The hort department was quick to respond. This year, for the first time, students in Faust’s greenhouse production class will be responsible for growing the plants that will be used to decorate the South Carolina Botanical Garden. For example, the garden manager will tell the students when he needs marigolds, and students must then figure out the schedule from sowing to finish.

“In the past, students taking this class worked on five square feet of bench space per student,” says Faust, who adds that students now work in a full-size greenhouse. “That was not nearly the same as producing plants the way a commercial greenhouse would. This will be more realistic and more of a challenge.”


Accommodating the student

A basic reality for most college students is a light wallet, as well as days that don’t have enough hours. Likewise, many students do not have access to cars or other forms of convenient transportation. Only a portion of the students who serve internships are fortunate enough to be placed in close proximity to their campuses or homes. In some cases, students must temporarily relocate and procure living quarters for the duration of their internships.

Recognizing the hardship internships can impose on students, some organizations have worked to make internships more accessible. For example, the American Floral Endowment uses two scholarship programs to help as many students as possible to participate in practical training programs.

“I think the educational side of training is OK,” says Jim Leider, head of projects and grants for the endowment. “The problem is that kids need practical experience, and that’s what these programs are all about.”

The Mosmiller Scholar Program allows students to work as paid interns for retail florists and wholesale floral distributors away from home or school. Upon completion of a 10- or 16-week internship, students receive a $2,000 grant.

The Vic & Margaret Ball Internship matches students with greenhouses, nurseries or botanical gardens away from the student’s home or school for a three- or six-month paid internship. Upon completion, students receive a $3,000 or $6,000 grant (depending on the length of the internship).

Though Four Star only pays its interns about $6.50 per hour, the company offers one major perk: free housing. The company sets up interns in studio apartments in a nearby town and covers their monthly rents and security deposit.

Crum also notes that growers would welcome with open arms any interns with the flexibility to work in the winter and spring. While almost all of Crum’s interns elect to work from May through August, he says that December to April would be a much better time of year. “We get a lot busier,” he explains. However, Crum understands the impracticality of using interns in the winter months, acknowledging that his preferred schedule would require students to take time off from school.

For his part, Leider would also like to encourage students to work during the peak crop production season even though this schedule might cut into the school year. The AFE’s Vic & Margaret Ball internship is offered in both three- and six-month increments, but Leider says the AFE encourages students to complete the six-month program if they can. “It’s full time, which requires students to take off school, but many places aren’t busy in the summer,” Leider explains. “We encourage people to go in the winter and spring when there is more action.”


Still required: a passion for plants

For all the success Four Star has reaped from its internship program, not to mention the satisfaction inherent in training future industry leaders, Crum is not complacent about the industry-wide shortage of skilled employees.

“There are not enough students coming out of university programs right now to fill the need,” he states.

Leider, who notes that even AFE has trouble “giving the money away,” bemoans the shortage of young people entering the profession. Those who do have an advantage if they can include internship experience on their resumes. “The reality is that recent graduates with work experience are in great demand, and are very well-paid,” says Leider.

Ann Hancock, director of the DeLapa Perennial Gardens at Michigan State University, looks at the floriculture job market from a somewhat different angle. Unlike law or medicine, this is not a profession in which monetary riches serve as a prime incentive. “Most students enter the industry knowing they are going to starve for awhile,” says Hancock. “Students just absolutely have to love plants.”

What can we draw from this seeming paradox? On the one hand, recent graduates with internship experience are not only in demand but can command relatively high entry-level salaries. On the other hand, students committed to making careers in this industry might still have to settle for less money than they could garner in other professions.

Though Starman of the University of Tennessee agrees that low salaries can be “a roadblock” to attracting qualified people, she remains cautiously optimistic that the inherent appeal of an industry based on beauty and aesthetics is garnering new consideration by young people looking for fulfilling life work.

“It’s coming around full circle,” she says. “When I got involved in the industry, it was because I was doing something I really cared about. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, money became more important. But today I think people are getting into the industry because they’re passionate about plants.”

About The Author:

Kara Wipf is special projects editor for GPN.

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