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In Midst of College Crisis, Green Industry Offers Alternatives

This month, Lawn and Landscape wrote a piece on the increasing number of young people who are entering the Landscape Industry rather than matriculating into a four-year college or university. This is a contentious point to some; ultimately, is it better that young people forego careers in favor of continuing their education, or should entering the workforce take precedence over getting a degree?

College Crisis

Photo by Kevin Dooley.

For teens growing up in today’s tumultuous economy, the path forward after high school is hardly simple. Over the past few decades, the cost of higher education rose exponentially as wages for most jobs remained stagnant. Now, even middle class families struggle to put their children through college, and most young people who chose to go to school end up accruing thousands of dollars in debt. Still, high schoolers are told that college is the sole key to upward mobility. The message is clear: if you want a good job that pays well and offers advancements, get a degree. But what of the bright, talented young people who can’t afford to take out $10,000 or more in loans? What of the high schoolers who, at the tender age of 18, just aren’t ready for more schooling? And what of everyone stuck somewhere in-between?

It’s Not Just “School or Bust”

When it comes to education and career advancement, young people need more options. It is no longer feasible (or even desirable) for every high schooler in the country to go to college. Telling young people that it’s “school or bust” inevitably leads many people who cannot afford school or don’t truly want to be there on a path towards failure. When I was completing my degree, I saw countless other students stumble miserably through courses they didn’t care about just to earn a degree they didn’t really want or need. Most of them left school with impossible debts and poor job prospects. They struggled to pay their bills and felt as if their time spent at school was a waste of time and money. Stories like these make it difficult not to feel disillusionment towards the entire system of higher education: a system that promises everything and then delivers scraps.

What The Green Industry Can Do

The Green Industry is in a unique position to address this disillusionment. Long plagued by low retention rates and flaky employees, landscapers across the country have searched far and wide for a more reliable workforce. Most companies do not require that employees have any kind of formal degree, though some (admirably) incentivize education by offering to pay for community college courses in exchange for more specialized skills. In order to attract better workers, many companies have also started offering benefits to full-time employees: PTO, healthcare and retirement packages, as well as better starting wages and opportunities for advancement. Hell, when I graduated from college in 2016, local green industry jobs paid higher wages and offered more incentives than other jobs that “required” a college degree.

Growing up, I was fed stigmas about “blue collar” work; namely, that blue collar jobs are for people who aren’t good enough to do white collar work. Well, in a world where the line between poverty and affluence is getting thinner and thinner, it’s about time we move past needless pretensions. These days, young people dream more about making a living wage than changing the world. They are creative, technologically saavy and hard-working, but they increasingly see college as more of a privilege than a right—because that is precisely what higher education has become. Looking towards the future, they know what’s at stake, and they’re willing to utilize their skills and expertise in unorthodox ways—provided they receive something more concrete than a diploma in return.

If landscaping companies can incentive young people by providing living wages, benefits packages, vacation time, and a supportive work environment that promises future opportunities, young people—both college graduates and those without degrees—can bring innovation, insight, and creativity into The Green Industry. In turn, landscapers can provide them with much needed options, and a path forward that offers more autonomy and control than obligatory, expensive schooling. What we can all do is empower the young people in our lives to make their own decisions regarding school and work. If we care about the future, we need to care about the welfare of teenagers and young adults who are uniquely vulnerable to poverty, exploitation, and stagnancy. They need more options—we can give them some.

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