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Why apprenticeship programs are important for the green industry

May 26, 2021 -  By and
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Eichenlaub apprentice Megan Wolfgang performs landscape maintenance. (Photo: Eichenlaub)

Boots on the ground Eichenlaub apprentice Megan Wolfgang performs landscape maintenance. (Photo: Eichenlaub)

When Environmental Enhancements in Sterling, Va., decided to offer the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ (NALP) Landscape Management Apprenticeship Program to its employees, the company took a careful approach to find candidates to be a part of this opportunity. The company provides commercial landscape management, design/installation, irrigation, organic pest control and snow and ice services.

NALP began offering the apprenticeship program, which is registered by the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2019. NALP developed this program to establish the landscape profession as a skilled trade. The association says it opens doors for recruitment through high school counselors, veterans’ groups and community workforce boards.

Companies must be in business for a year to be eligible to participate and pay a $500 enrollment fee and $100 per apprentice for NALP members. Optional training per apprentice is $737 for three online courses, and apprentices who do not complete the program in two years will need to pay a $50 holdover free.

Carmen Kesteven, HR manager with Environmental Enhancements, says companies considering offering the apprenticeship program need to understand there are some basic requirements of all potential apprentices. This includes a high school diploma or GED certificate. Kesteven also asks applicants to provide a resume, another step to establish the program as one for professional development, something she says is important to the company.

“To us, it was really an opportunity to have trained, certified employees,” she says. “If we can present this as an opportunity, as an incentive for a career path for any employee, this gives them the opportunity to better themselves.”

Hector Marin, Environmental Enhancements IPM manager, with his U.S. Department of Labor certificate. (Photo: Environmental Enhancements)

Completed Hector Marin, Environmental Enhancements IPM manager, with his U.S. Department of Labor certificate. (Photo: Environmental Enhancements)

A crucial part of the success of the apprenticeship program is finding the right mentor to help your employee navigate through the program.

“Not everyone is a mentor, no matter how long you have been working for the industry,” she says. “Not everyone can coach. In order to be a great mentor, you have to know how to coach.”

Kesteven says it’s important to recognize this program is also a major time commitment for the apprentice as the program can take up to two years to complete. The Landscape Management Apprenticeship Program has 17 steps with about 2,000 hours total of training, including 144 hours of online education and testing. Program participants can apply up to 1,000 hours of experience and knowledge to the program. Kesteven says Environmental Enhancements will provide computer access for employees who may need it.

“I believe the owner of the company smiles every time that someone says, ‘I would like to do this,’” she says. “Because he does believe in self-improvement; he believes in professional growth.”

Environmental Enhancement considers motivated and organized apprentice candidates who have worked for the company for at least six months and meet the company’s basic criteria of a resume and a high school diploma or GED certificate. All apprentice candidates must be eligible to work in the U.S., pass a substance abuse screening and be able to perform the duties of a landscape professional.

“You cannot just put someone in because you feel like it or because that person wants it,” she says. “It’s a commitment on the apprentice. It’s a commitment on the mentor. It’s a commitment on the company and the program administrator. It is not a given.”

Environmental Enhancements offers wage increases as employees complete each of the 17 steps to reward and encourage employees going through
the program.

“You’re presenting something visible, something that they can see and something they will be obtaining as they move through the program,” she says.

Hector Marin, IPM manager for Environmental Enhancements, was the company’s first apprentice, and Kesteven says it was a source of pride for him to complete the program. Kesteven strongly encourages companies to start with one or two employees at a time to set up participants and the company for success.

“Know what you need,” she says. “Have the right people in place. Commit to it, fulfill that commitment and always be there to help your apprentice. And also, this will tell you how well you know your people.”

Zachary Pulcini and Megan Wolfgang of Eichenlaub show off apprenticeship certificates. (Photo: Eichenlaub)

Got it done Zachary Pulcini and Megan Wolfgang of Eichenlaub show off apprenticeship certificates. (Photo: Eichenlaub)

Building toward tomorrow

How Eichenlaub got its apprenticeship program up and running

Eichenlaub launched its apprenticeship program about two years ago as part of its effort to recruit people to its team and entice people to the landscape industry.

“We felt this was a good avenue to get people interested who might not be certain about the green industry,” says Angela Barr, director of administration at Eichenlaub, a design/build, irrigation and maintenance firm in Pittsburgh.

“It’s another tool for building up the team and getting people interested in changing the negative thought that landscaping is just a person mowing grass. In reality, there are a lot more opportunities within the green industry than just a guy with a pickup truck.”

So far, Eichenlaub has had two apprentices go through the Landscape Management Apprenticeship Program, sponsored by the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). The estimated timeline for apprenticeships is from about a year to a year and a half.

“The overall goal is for them to have a better understanding of the depth of the landscape industry,” Barr says. “It’s a great way they can work and earn a wage while also having this opportunity to learn and better understand where their preferences are and where they might like to work in the future.”

Barr says NALP has also served as a resource to get the program up and running.

“NALP puts together a great program that hits on a lot of facets, and I think it’s up to the individual company to train and teach those in their program,” Barr says. “NALP is always willing to help you out no matter the question and push you in the right direction to get the answer for you. It’s great to have a national association that’s willing to do as much as it does to help companies get this type of program started.”

Throughout the program, apprentices work in tandem with the company’s various crews and with the staff development coordinator.

“They’re in the trenches with irrigation systems, understanding how those work, getting exposure to smart systems with the planting department,” Barr says. “They are working with the landscape management department, understanding fertilizer calibration and learning best practices for mowing and weeding.”

Barr says recent high school graduates who are proactive and who maintain a positive attitude are the type of candidates Eichenlaub seeks as apprentices.

“The more that they’re putting into it, the more questions they’re asking, the more they’re taking advantage of the opportunities that are put forth to them, the more productive and beneficial the apprenticeship will be for them,” Barr says.

Barr recommends communicating with high schools via email and in person, if possible, through open houses about the apprenticeship programs to generate interest.

“I think the biggest thing is getting it out to the high schools, the guidance counselors, in front of the parents, because they’re going to be some of the biggest influencers in the decision process,” Barr says. “It’s more so of an education process at this point; we’re just making people aware of the program. With Pittsburgh being a steel town, people understand the word apprenticeship. We’re just applying it to another industry.”

For companies looking to incorporate an apprenticeship program, Barr suggests leaning on a fellow landscape company that has already gone through the process.

“We’ve learned a lot here with getting individuals through the apprenticeship program, and we’re able to determine how we need to make adjustments to make it a more seamless process,” she says.

Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the editor of Landscape Management magazine. Known for her immersive approach to travel from coast to coast in her previous stint as senior editor of American Fruit Grower Magazine, she uses social media (Twitter/Instagram @EditorHerrick) to share her experiences on the road with her audience. Herrick has a degree in journalism from Ohio Northern University and has been in B2B publishing for seven years. She can be reached at cherrick@northcoastmedia.net.

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