Year after year, demand for local food increases and the need for expertise in green infrastructure and landscape-based resiliency strategies compounds. At the same time, workforce challenges in the industry have prevented many companies from growing sustainably. These horticulture, landscape, and nursery businesses face a fundamental common problem: a lack of young, trained people poised to enter the industry.
Enter the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA), an umbrella trade association for the state’s diverse plant-based industries, with member businesses ranging from arboricultural firms to compost farms, u-pick berry operations to fine gardening companies, landscape designers to turf growers. KK&P has been working with RINLA over the past year to develop registered apprenticeship programs to recruit, train, and retain the next generation of “green collar” career seekers.
Registered apprenticeships — usually associated with the construction trades — are a time-tested model that combine on-the-job training and mentorship with classroom or field-based instruction. Apprentices are employees, with the opportunity to “earn while they learn”; and while registered apprenticeship programs have a designated timeframe (e.g. one year), upon completion of the program, the apprentice remains employed by the company. Employers invest in apprentices, industry standards are elevated, and long-term relationships and careers are built.
According to Senior Consultant Shayna Cohen, “We started out by interviewing employers to understand, as specifically as possible, their workforce challenges and the opportunities available in their businesses. We designed a career pathways map that articulates how a person would enter this industry, what training or certifications they might need, how they might specialize, what specific jobs and wages they might hold, and how they would build from a job to a career.” Armed with that information, KK&P set about designing a registered apprenticeship program for an entry-level generalist position that would be useful to a wide range of businesses. We facilitated a series of meetings with eleven early-adopter RINLA member businesses (very different from each other in terms of size, range of services, and company culture), and set about defining a common curriculum and set of skills, or competencies, that related to them all. The result of those discussions became the registered apprenticeship program standards.
The first cohort of more than 30 apprentices launched in February (before the rush of the growing season) with a three week “Winter Intensive” curriculum designed to introduce apprentices to the industry and broad topics in production, ecology, landscape design, and natural resource management.
Over the course of the next year, KK&P will support RINLA in developing a comprehensive plan to guide the program’s growth over the next five years, including not just the registered apprenticeship program itself but the ecosystem of contexts and supports (such as policy, marketing of the industry, coaching for employers, networking relevant education, and training programs) that will ensure it succeeds, for apprentices and for employers.
According to Shannon Brawley, the Executive Director of RINLA, “The Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association believes in the Apprenticeship model – what’s not to love about a model that provides employees a way to earn while you learn, provides education that meets the standards and needs of industry, provides a valuable communication tool for employers and employees, provides young people with a career pathway with living wages and begins to solve many other issues facing green industry and our community.”
We are already being asked to explore how this program can eventually be scaled nationally to meet the common needs in other states. And KK&P is looking at the structure and role of apprenticeships to solve workforce development and industry needs across the agriculture, food, and health continuum.