PLANET Student Career Days YouTube Video
Horticulture Competition Gives Students Chance to Display Skills, Meet Prospective Employers
MANHATTAN, Kan. – About 800 gung-ho, green-thumb degree seekers will descend on Kansas State University March 22-25, ready to make their mark in the world of horticulture.
“They typically come in teams from more than 60 colleges and universities. They compete in 28 different exterior and interior contests, testing their real-life skills and knowledge. While one team member is trying to identify 50 plant pests, another may be trying to retrieve a soccer ball from an inverted cone … using a backhoe!” said Cathie Lavis, K-State Research and Extension landscape specialist.
Industry leaders, ranging from landscape businesses to lawn equipment manufacturers run the contests and do the judging. They also present a slate of workshops and the largest career fair of its kind -- where the exhibits have space for one-on-one interviews with potential interns and employees.
These leaders are working professionals and members of PLANET (Professional Landscape Network), the sponsoring organization. PLANET is an association of some 3,800 member firms that employ more than 100,000 green industry professionals. K-State’s event will be its 36th annual Student Career Days.
“It’s quite an honor to be selected as a host location, but you earn it. We started four years ago. We’ve had amazing support from the College of Agriculture and Kansas green industry. Still, it’s been like planning a 28-ring circus -- from the big picture down to the tiniest details,” said K-State landscape horticulturist Greg Davis. “I haven’t even had time to make sure our own team has a cheer ready.”
After PLANET’s official welcome and challenge to achieve, Student Career Days gets off to a raucous start with an annual roll call. When each school’s logo appears on the auditorium screen, the school’s team has 20 seconds to present an original and preferably creative “cheer.” (No gymnastics or souvenir throwing allowed.) The team judged to have the best entry earns a $1,000 prize from John Deere.
As K-State’s team coaches, Davis and Lavis normally would be doing some cheerleading of their own about now. Conveying confidence during last-minute practices is as important as helping team members remember which gear to pack.
This year, however, “normal” is on a much longer to-do list.
“I was rushing down the hall last week when it just popped into my head: The wizard … Oz … the Munchkins singing, ‘We belong to the Lollipop Guild.’ We could change the words of that song for our cheer!” Lavis recalled. “Then I realized our students aren’t willing to remind anyone about Dorothy. So, I started worrying about traffic cones.”
Locating orange “hats” to borrow hadn’t been as easy as she’d expected. Traffic cones may sprout up in Kansas as fast as eastern redcedars. Nonetheless, the coaches had scrambled to meet their quota.
About three weeks before opening day, however, they discovered scheduling conflicts meant they had to find another 100 cones -- mostly to delineate obstacle courses for skid-steer and truck-and-trailer events.
But then hosting career days also requires finding the right trees for climbing and pruning, as well as the right computer lab for developing 3D landscape designs. The event requires space to operate a compact excavator and an area where each team can put together a working irrigation system. It entails places to build 60 full-scale Pavestone patio plots and to accommodate a 60 x 160-feet tent for wood construction.
“One of our biggest challenges has been the fact Kansas has unpredictable spring weather,” Davis said. “By changing where Student Career Days convenes each year, PLANET also gives students the chance to see and experience horticulture in different parts of the country. Sometimes that can be quite a shock. Combined with the weather, it can have a big impact on some contests’ degree of difficulty.”
The competing students also need an indoor place to repair a small engine or give a sales presentation. They need rooms to estimate maintenance costs or design an atrium’s interiorscape. Plus, many of the contests include a written exam.
“And let’s not forget the challenge of feeding all those hungry college students and industry professionals through the three-day event,” Lavis said.
To crown its tasks, a host university must find examples for five identification contests: 50 annual and perennial plants, 50 interior landscape plants, 25 to 50 plant problems (insects, diseases, etc.), 50 turf and turf pest specimens and 50 woody landscape plants. (Spelling and botanical name will count.)
To get ready, volunteers inventoried every plant in K-State’s greenhouses, with a list of this year’s PLANET-specified species in hand. Then other volunteers started searching for unfound specimens.
“We wouldn’t have had a chance without lots of support. Local nurseries and landscapers are involved, as are our graduate students and faculty colleagues,” Lavis said. “Keith and Darrell Westervelt of Blueville Nursery (in Manhattan) actually joined us for Atlanta’s career days several years ago, to see what they were getting into.”
K-State’s Landscape Contracting Team typically has 30 aspiring horticulturists to compete in each year’s career days. Just to enter, they must come equipped with everything from safety glasses, boots and gloves to an architect’s scale, hand tools and sharpened pencils.
According to Davis, however, the 2011-12 team is 50-strong and excited to be hosting a PLANET event.
The three students who normally would be handling registrations, travel arrangements, and team T-shirts are helping organize and coordinate the actual meet. They are Emily Frasier (who will emcee the opening roll call) of Limon, Colo.; George Dille, Wamego, Kan.; and Chris Roesch, Marysville, Kan.
Some of this year’s contestants will start preparing for next year’s event as soon as they get home, Davis added. Unless their group can attract funding support, they’ll have to pay for their own registration, travel and lodging. Yet, PLANET has designed Student Career Days to attract the brightest and best of the next generation. So, students want to be ready to shine … and start networking.