Are You Driving Young Growers Away? [Opinion]

Are You Driving Young Growers Away? [Opinion]

Laura Drotleff Are we our own worst enemy?

Growers often tell us that there is a shortage of educated, qualified growers coming out of four-year horticulture degree programs. This is a problem that spans all of horticulture, whether you’re a wholesale grower, grower-retailer, landscape contractor, seed broker, hard goods supplier, etc.


But if we’re not careful about the hiring practices we have in place at our respective businesses, and making sure we are not only complying with the law at the most basic level, but also cultivating a culture of tolerance and acceptance rather than one of discrimination, we could be making the situation worse.

Recently I talked with a young woman who graduated with a B.S. in Horticulture this past spring. Since graduation, she has applied to 45 companies ranging from landscape design/build companies to growing operations. Of those companies, she says roughly 13% included illegal questions on their application forms, including asking the applicant’s age, gender, and whether or not she had a disability.

In four job interviews, this young woman was asked illegal questions directly, including whether or not she was married or had children, when she was born, and again, the disability question. She says she was even asked, in an interview for a supervisor position, if she ever had problems working with men, because “men sometimes don’t like taking orders from women. Especially young graduates,” like her.

She says, “I wanted to tell him, ‘Seriously, this is the 21st century. If you have male workers who cannot follow orders just because I am a female, then you need to be the boss that you are and either reprimand or fire them.’”

Guess what? She’s not alone in experiencing this kind of illegal questioning. Students talk to one another, and out of discussion comes frustration with our industry. One concern that comes up a few times per semester among students is how much of a male-dominated industry horticulture tends to be, and the clear inequality in wages between men and women. This is an issue that we can expect to hear more about in the coming months, and one that businesses in the horticulture industry need to be progressive enough to address.

“There have been moments I have considered giving up,” she says. “I am fortunate that I have a loving, supportive family that wants me to pursue my dreams.”

We wonder why young people aren’t choosing to pursue careers in our industry. But if they do go as far as to complete a horticulture or comparable degree, or to come to the industry from a nontraditional path, I think we can all agree that we don’t want to drive them away with ignorant questions and antiquated policies. Not to mention that asking illegal interview questions or showing discrimination can be in direct violation of laws like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (among others), and open your business up to a potential lawsuit.

As of December 1, businesses were due to put in place policies to adopt the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime rule changes, although that has recently been delayed. And starting January 2, 2017, growers of agricultural crops, including greenhouses and nurseries, are required to be compliant with the changes to the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard. As we address emerging legal issues, and new state and federal employment legislation and regulations that impact our workplaces, let’s also be sure to fine-tune our hiring and employment practices and policies.

Keep in mind that the grower shortage also happens to be an issue for cannabis producers, who may be turning their sights on our industry for a reliable supply of experienced growers. If we don’t do a better job of making our businesses friendly to young growers and lose out to producers who will, we have no one to blame but ourselves.