Rural Caucus: The Gift of Work

April 29, 2019

It’s no secret that human beings need purpose and meaning, thriving when given responsibility and avenues to provide for ourselves.  But how do we fulfill these needs?  Well, for many, through the gift of work.  We see this conceptualization of work exemplified in an Aspen Institute paper, where the “American Bargain” is described as a recognition that,”… work is not just a living, but that it gives structure, dignity, and purpose to our lives; and that those who do the work are not a cost of doing business but the wellspring of productivity, creativity, and success.”  The lawyer, the stay-at-home parent, the construction worker, and everyone in between illustrate the dignity and purpose found in our labor.

Work is also vital to the development of young people, imparting important skills that aid their transition to adulthood.  However over the last several decades, cultural and economic changes have resulted in fewer teens of today choosing to enter the job market when legally able.  The result is that young folks suffer from a lack of work experience, and communities miss out on exciting potential.

So, what can counties do to encourage young adults and teens to explore local employment possibilities?  Though unable to tackle every cause of the youth employment decline, community leaders may still, through the institutions they oversee, play a role in a work resurgence.  For instance, schools are well placed to engage students with the importance, benefits, and diversity of work.

Let’s examine how one Virginia community is working to offer valuable training opportunities to its high school students.  I recently spoke with Callan Dudley, Human Resources Coordinator at Southern Landscape Group, INC (SLG), a local business partnering with Campbell County Public Schools to recruit student workers and provide landscape training.  SLG maintains a Short Course instruction opportunity for interested students, and offers training to horticulture  students.

Callan, tell us about when and why SLG began this program?  We began our Short Course partnership with Campbell County Technical Center  and Campbell County Schools in 2017 after we lost our H2B Visa Program.  Our Short Course offers a hands-on experience where students learn all aspects of the green industry.  From the Short Course, we began a partnership with Brookville High School’s Horticulture class, working monthly with students on topics from actual landscape-related tasks to general life skills. 

What have been your results?  Fourteen students have participated in the Short Course over the past two years.  We have been able to offer eight paid internships and have hired three full-time employees.

What are your greatest challenges in recruiting and retaining youth?  The major problem is breaking the perception of what working at a landscape company involves and opening students’ minds to all that we do.  Most students falsely believe that landscape companies only mow grass or that you cannot make any money in this work, so a major focus is creating an accurate awareness.  Once we have an opportunity to talk to students and share our wage rates and growth path, their eyes begin to open to the fact that they can make a decent living in this career.

How do we resolve these challenges?  Just creating an awareness of the industry and the opportunities can be huge.  There has been a push for college, however some students choose another path.  Parents need an awareness of the opportunities available for their children and to know that there is money to be made in our industry.  Unfortunately, we have not tapped into that awareness yet!

Do you see opportunities for other businesses and industries to follow your lead?  Absolutely!  Our Brookville Horticulture teaching partnership has been so successful because students know we care about their future.  We also teach soft-skills, allowing all students to be engaged with topics related to interview/resume skills, teamwork, and workplace communication.  They know that we care about their future and are invested in helping them become more marketable in the workforce.  Our idea is that instead of sitting around complaining about the flaws of the next generation in the workforce, let’s try to make a difference!

How might school systems encourage this type of community engagement from the businesses around them?  I think, first and foremost, school systems must make business engagement a priority, with complete staff buy-in.  We have been blessed to work with teachers and administrators in our area who care about their students and their future.  They make it extremely easy for businesses like ours to partner with them. 

How have you seen this type of program make a difference?  This program has tremendously helped our business, with three full-time hires, just from our Short Course in the last two years.  These students are extremely hard working and passionate about what they do.  As it relates to the partnership with the Brookville Horticulture class, students are learning and engaged, and excitedly participating in our training activities.  Students and even parents approach me in public, thanking me for what we are doing.  These life skills are extremely important. Students are tremendously appreciative of the opportunity to perform mock interviews or build a resume.

What a promising investment in Virginia’s youth!  We thank Callan for taking time to speak with us about this exciting partnership and hope that more local businesses will follow the SLG and Campbell County example.  As always, be sure to let us know if you found this piece helpful.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

Additional Resources

VACo Contact: Angela Inglett

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