Cover Story: Fresh faces of horticulture

Features - Cover Story

We surveyed students to discover what drew them to the green industry and what they expect from a career in horticulture. Professors and hiring managers also weigh in on their experiences with this new generation of professionals.

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Students Nathan Detwiler and Cristen Flamm photographed at the Howlett Hall greenhouse on campus at The Ohio State University.
LEONARDO CARRIZO

Horticulture isn’t taught at many elementary, middle and high schools. Students may receive a lima bean seed in a cup, and teachers may instruct them to add paper towels with water, care for it and watch it sprout, but that’s generally the extent of it. In the garden center industry, many businesses are family-owned, and so children of owners grow up immersed in plants, and gardening terms and plant names are second language to them. Growing a garden was once common knowledge, taught from an early age and rooted in people’s DNA, but that’s drastically changed over the years for all of the reasons you’ve heard and we’ve written about before.

So how did students pursuing a green industry career first become interested in plants? We set out to discover the expectations and aspirations of these students, why they want to work in the green industry and what challenges they face getting there. We also spoke to professors and hiring managers to find out if these expectations are realistic, and their experiences with this new crop of professionals. When reflecting on what drew them to plants, students didn’t mention working in the garden at a young age; they talked about horticulture classes in college that inspired them to look beyond their previous dreams of careers in other fields. They talked about the importance of a healthy environment and responsible, sustainable food production. They found their passion for the industry later in life.

What if we were to reach them earlier and younger? During industry events, hiring managers often lament the difficulty of finding qualified candidates to fill roles at their companies. If more people discovered a love of and appreciation for plants at a young age, perhaps it wouldn’t be so challenging.

Horticulture students Cristen Flamm and Nathan Detwiler having fun at the photo shoot on campus at The Ohio State University.
LEONARDO CARRIZO

On the next few pages, you’ll see results from our survey of 145 students in different horticulture programs — from general horticulture to greenhouse management to plant biology — who revealed their goals and perspectives by completing a 17-question survey that we conducted in February 2016.

We also share responses from students who agreed to be interviewed after the survey about their specific career aspirations. Professors and hiring managers also weigh in on their experiences with newer employees.

Who we surveyed

Although the majority of students who took our survey are in their 20s at 87 percent, we did hear from “non-traditional” students in their 30s, 40s and older. Darryl Sanford, 50, is making a career shift and wonders if more people would be involved in the industry if horticulture was introduced to students at a young age. Marshall Pierce, 23, originally went to college for business until he took a few classes in horticulture and changed direction.

How we did it

On Feb. 9, 2016, we emailed professors at institutes of higher education in the U.S. that offer horticulture programs with a link to our survey on SurveyMonkey. The professors passed the survey link to their horticulture students, who then completed the 17-question online survey between Feb. 9 and Feb. 20. We closed the survey with 145 respondents on Feb. 20. We spoke with several students who both completed the survey and expressed willingness to share further opinions.

Students Nathan Detwiler and Cristen Flamm photographed on campus at The Ohio State University.
LEONARDO CARRIZO
Schools represented

Laying the groundwork

Horticulture degrees were the most popular in our survey, and professors we spoke to at various universities and colleges say interest in landscape design, construction and management is dwindling, despite the job opportunities available in the field. Tina Marie Cade, horticulture professor at Texas State University, says she saw the shift during the recent economic recession. “Turf and landscape design and landscape management were all the rage until about 2009. With the economic shifts, and the buy local and organic attitudes, more students are interested in farming again. The turf class has been phased out.” Landscape majors still ranked second on our survey, however.

The majority of students we surveyed have previously worked or currently work in horticulture. Professors we interviewed say their schools require internships, so the remaining 34 percent without a working background will likely gain some experience before graduation.

The renewed emphasis on environmental conservation seems to be drawing many students we surveyed to the industry.

Professors mentioned that students seemed less interested in landscape construction and design than in years past, but even further down the list is retail. Just 14 percent of students surveyed said they were interested in this area. However, perhaps more so than other fields in horticulture, retail requires not just plant knowledge, but skills in areas such as marketing, advertising and customer service, so it’s possible that those students are pursuing other majors.

Those who answered “yes” provided reasons why their parents were concerned and the perceptions they had. Here are a few of the most common responses: pay is too low/income wouldn’t be consistent or year-round; there aren’t enough available jobs/opportunities; job variety is limited (i.e. only option is to be a large-scale monocrop farmer); female entering a male-dominated industry.

The job search

Unlike graduates during the years of economic downturn and difficulty, this generation of students is hopeful, with 77 percent believing it will be easy to find a job in their major upon graduation. When they do land a job, the most important aspect for this group is a positive culture and work environment. Second is upward movement. This is a generation that values career growth, and according to some studies, expects, with hard work, to move up quickly.

These responses don’t seem to directly correlate with feedback about what’s important when considering potential employers (see responses above). Positive culture ranked as most essential for that question, but here, only a fourth of respondents said a poor culture would be a deal-breaker.

In many cases, the students’ desires to be entrepreneurs or not are fueled by specific personal goals. Here’s what students had to say about owning their own companies.

“One day, I would like to have my own business, but I would prefer to work for someone for a few years first.”

“I want to produce and grow hops and supply breweries.”

“I owned my own company, but found it very stressful to ‘wear all the hats.’ I heard [a landscape industry consultant] say that if you didn’t mind being constantly stressed and losing sleep over your business, go own your own business. If you enjoy the people and the work … then go be an owner’s right-hand man. That’s what I did, and it’s great.”

“I would love to develop floating farms.”

“My grandparents have a fruit farm that I’d like to take over.”

“I would like to have a legal wholesale outdoor marijuana growing operation in a state where [it’s] legal in the future.”

“I believe that owning your own business is part of the fabric that creates a diverse culture within communities.”

“I would like to work for the government as a diagnostician.”

“My dream is to own a landscape design/architecture firm that evokes green solutions against climate change. For example, to design green roofs or vertical walls that can fight against air pollutants and CO2 emissions.”

“I would like to own a small-scale organic farm.”

Most students are ready to work and have realistic salary expectations, according to survey responses.

Professors weigh in

What expectations are you seeing from students, and are they realistic?

Holly L. Scoggins, Ph. D., associate professor, Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech:

We require an internship experience, and a good fraction of students have done multiple internships by the time they graduate. I think this goes a long way in their understanding of real world challenges.

Tina Marie Cade, Ph. D., professor of horticulture, Texas State University:

Technology gives them the expectation that an app will give them any information they need. They don’t need to remember a palette of plant materials because the answers will be on their phone. It’s sometimes hard to get them to realize they need to have some base knowledge and that this is the time to learn some stuff and then learn how to learn more later for when the technology will change again. Students hesitate in choosing horticulture as a career because of the potential for a lower income in some areas. They also hesitate because of the uncertainty of skilled and unskilled labor to have as helpers in the field. These seem like realistic challenges and expectations.

Jim Klett, Ph. D., professor of landscape horticulture for Colorado State University

The nontraditional types of students that have been in different careers know that you can’t start at the top with big salaries. That’s why we really stress internships to make sure this is something they really want to get into. You have some students thinking they should be making $60,000, $70,000 when they leave here. That’s not going to happen. [Entry level, green industry jobs] are in the $30,000, $40,000 salary range to start out with. Some of our places are very conservative and still want to pay by the hour. Those places have a hard time getting our students to work for them.

What struggles do students have? What are they excelling in?

HS: They struggle with/hate math and chemistry. After two semesters of both, you’d think fertilizer calculations would be a piece of cake. But no. They are soaking up business-related information, small business management and other great courses from Ag Economics. I’d say they have a pretty good grip on how tough it’s going to be out there. In Horticulture, anything hands-on really seems to be appreciated. Students are happiest building, digging, potting, growing, etc.

TMC: The students struggle with the math required for the business and economics courses. They also struggle with chemistry, which is required for Soil Science. I think a lot of American students have these struggles. They excel in leadership and teamwork. They’re creative and do well in hands-on work. They are interested in grassroots endeavors. They are active in the community. They care about making a difference on campus and in the world.

JK: [We envision] our students to [eventually] be managers at garden centers or superintendents or head growers. … Right now, Colorado especially is booming with construction and housing, and the demand for plant material and growers is out there. There are more jobs now than there are students in our programs graduating.

What career paths/interests do students have?

HS: For horticulture in general, we have seen a surge in interest regarding food crops, self-sustainability, etc. Enrollment in landscape design and contracting has dropped, despite the number of job opportunities out there. Greenhouse and nursery production interests seem to be holding steady. We recently added a viticulture minor that is very popular. We don’t have nearly enough students to fill a fraction of these opportunities, which frustrates those looking for employees and interns.

TMC: They are leaning more toward food production and organic farming compared to the late ’90s when food production courses were almost phased out due to lack of enrollment. Turf and landscape design and landscape management were all the rage until about 2009. With the economic shifts, and the buy-local and organic attitudes, more students are interested in farming again. The turf class has been phased out. The students here at Texas State have always been very environmentally oriented/earthy, but it is even more so than when I arrived in 2001. I’m not sure if I have too, or if I influenced them or they influenced me. It’s hard to tell anymore.

JK: We have what we call a horticulture business concentration, and a landscape business concentration, where the students [essentially] get a minor in business. They get their degree in either horticulture or environmental horticulture, but they’ll have a minor in business. I hear that all of the time from companies, that students need more business [knowledge]. Whenever I take my students on field trips, [hiring managers] say they want business experience. We’ve seen an increase in floriculture because of marijuana production in the state [Colorado], they want to know about greenhouse technology, how the greenhouses work, heating and ventilating. [Editor’s note: CSU does not have a marijuana production program, as that would be illegal.]

How have students changed during the years you’ve taught? What has surprised you about this new class?

HS: Brain dump is becoming a problem. By the time they reach a senior level course, they’ve had several classes covering similar ground: propagation, environmental factors, controlled environment horticulture, etc. But many [not all] struggle to build this into working knowledge. Learn the facts, take the test, forget it. I’ve seen this trend get worse over the past few years. Teaching to the tests/standards of learning in K-12 may be changing how students deal with/retain information.

TMC: We have lots of interest in beekeeping and sustainable operations, native and local foods, native plant landscaping, wildscaping, edible native plants, the problem of invasive species, etc. The students seem less independent these past few years. Their parents will follow them to campus (which is nice to be able to meet them), but their parents will also call or email me to take care of the student’s issues. I think that parents are hovering too much and not letting their student learn critical lessons that are supposed to be learned in college like the ability to manage their own problems. The students will communicate on email with problems instead of coming to class or office hours and often this isn’t the most effective way to learn the concepts, so they continue to struggle with the perception that since they emailed, they tried. The online resources like email etc. can often be more of an obstacle to real communication than anything. Older students arrive as folks who have changed careers and wanted to do something now in which they are passionate. Veterans are enrolling because nature is healing.

JK: The students now who are coming in here are a little more dedicated to their studies. They are a little more career-oriented … Before that, we had a lot of them who were just coming out of high school, and plants were something that they liked, but there is a little more serious nature to a lot of students that are here now, which is very encouraging.

What hiring managers want

What qualities/skills do you look for in a potential employee?

Maureen Murphy, owner, Bayview Farm & Garden, Langley, Wash.: Since we’re retail, the first things are energy and smiles. [We look for] a positive manner about them in the way that they interact with other people. If they use eye contact, if they have a nice, friendly, firm handshake … The smile is the very first thing I look for. I’ve taken to walking around with people when we do interviews because I like to see how energetic they are … It’s a very physical job and we’re on our feet all day. We need to make sure people are spry and energetic.

Jeff Murphy, American Color Inc., Orange, Va.: Punctuality. Education. Good work background. And if no background at all, if they’re out of college, if they’ve done any internships anywhere, how they perform at those locations. [We also look at] grades.

Mike Heulitt, human resources manager, Four Star Greenhouse, Carleton, Mich.: When I’m doing an interview ... I’m keying in on: are they passionate about growing, and is this position going to be the right fit for them?

We have developed a whole training program teaching people how to be a grower … The bulk of the positions that we hire [are] truly entry level, and more often than not, the people in entry level positions aren’t coming in with any kind of education.

Julie Zeijlmaker, human resources director, Battlefield Farms Inc., Rapidan, Va.: A lot of the really impressive resumes that I’ve seen are [from] students who have pictures of the internships that they’ve done and some information [about] the hands-on experience that they’ve had. I really think it’s important to do that. It shows that [they] went above and beyond and did more than just the required courses. It shows that they’re passionate about it, and that’s what stands out most on a resume. You want somebody who’s going to stick around. You want to see that they are really invested in it.

What has been your experience hiring talent in the past five years?

MM: People expect to make more an hour than they used to. We have to respond to that change in the labor market and prepare for when the day comes that the minimum wage goes up statewide.

JM: The main thing I have noticed in the younger crowds [is that] they don’t want to put their time in. You’re going to have to take those baby steps and work underneath a section grower and be an assistant so you can learn how to do things and understand the importance of a crop. It’s not OK, ‘Oh, I lost 500 pots, big deal. There were 10,000 pots in that section.’ Well, that’s a big deal. That’s a lot of money, especially when we’re talking $20 [per] pot. They want the responsibility quicker and faster because they want that money, and we want them to have that, but a lot of them aren’t understanding the concept that they need to put the time in and [for] us who are in positions of management, we didn’t get here overnight.

JZ: If they’re coming into a grower position, a lot [of new growers] have never sprayed before, so they have to get their chemical handler’s license and learn the safety protocols and the compliance stuff for the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s work protection standard program]. They might be very intelligent as far as book smarts, but [may not have] a lot of hands-on experience.

How do you find the right people?

JM: We are actually part of and we run, in cooperation with Ohio State, an internship program. We have four interns here right now. This is the first time we’ve done it. We just started this back in November, and it seems to be going well so far. [They work] anywhere from six months to a year. We pay through the program. We provide their housing, and we provide a vehicle for them. We don’t pay for their gas and we don’t pay for their food, but we do pay for all of their housing, their electric. We have a house very close to us, maybe a mile down the road that we’re renting [for interns]. Ohio State helps [select students] who fit what we’re looking for. [Interns] are pretty much assistant growers. Our head grower is in charge of our whole operation, and then we have a lead grower [who] is in charge of the section growers, watching over in conjunction with the head grower, kind of like an assistant. And the interns … help spray, mix chemicals, mix fertilizer, water programming booms, all that kind of stuff.

JZ: Right now it’s basically a word-of-mouth and social media push. LinkedIn has proved to be really good, and so was posting the job to hortjobs.com.

MM: The only way we [advertise for new hires] is via in-house advertising, so the customers who come in here and know other employees [tend to be hired].

How do you retain/motivate employees?

MM: A lot of it is around what I call “the abundant life” instead of the “affluent life.” A lot of team building; people feel listened to and supported. I’m always trying to maintain the vibe at work so it’s positive and people will want to come to work every day. I’ve fired people for negative gossiping about their co-workers. I try to … have systems where people can express a concern and get a response to their concern so that people have a sense of ownership in the processes.

JM: We have a 401(k) retirement program and we do raises and reviews yearly. Every January we do a review process, and your raise is based on your performance … We’re very close as a company, [in that] ownership still interacts with everybody. Ed [Van Hoven, the company’s president] is very present in the greenhouse. Everybody knows who he is.

MH: We provide opportunities for people coming in as a section grower to progress in a career-oriented fashion. A lot of times, they’ll think the only place to go is in supervision, and we’ve determined through the years that either not everybody really wants to or has the right temperament to be a supervisor, so we have created different levels of section growers. We’ve created a position called section grower level 2, and that provides other opportunities for them to do more, take on more responsibilities, but not necessarily do a traditional supervisor role. They would take care of a larger growing area, they would be involved in development [of] training pieces or mentoring new employees. They would be involved in some of the higher level growing functions like reading soil tests for pH and EC and making the decision of what fertilizer to use and at what rate. They might get trained [on] how to use growth regulators and how to make the decision on what growth regulator is needed and at what rate.

JZ: The family that we work for is very active in giving back to the agricultural programs in the community. They also have missions in Guatemala and Haiti, so it’s a good company to work for.

Final thoughts on the future of the horticulture industry?

MM: There isn’t the same level of interest in horticulture as there is in my generation. So, that’s one reason why I’m going through such a huge transition with my store. I’m bringing in a lot of non-plant products to carry us through the winter. I’m doing things like having the farmers market in my greenhouse in the winter. … Our plants are still our main identity and the thing we do best, but we don’t see the labor pool out there where people know anything about plants. The next generation, they really don’t care about all these different cultivars. They do care about food gardening a lot, they are interested in that. We probably sell 10-to-one cookbooks over gardening books.”

JM: I think, No. 1, we have kind of developed a bad [image] for ourselves in the industry. A lot of people think [it’s] a lot of work, too long hours and low pay, but those longer hours are getting less and less [and] for the most part, those days of being here until 9, 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night are behind us. Now, some places do run two shifts, but that’s totally different. It’s not like you’re running people into the ground working them 16, 18 hours a day ... It’s not the same employee [atmosphere]. As an industry, we need to promote ourselves better.

What is a typical salary range at your operation for an entry-level graduate with a degree in horticulture or a related field?

MM: [We] start them at $12 [per hour]… [With an] evaluation [every] three weeks or a month to see how strong they are, then do a wage increase. My department managers who are doing my buying are anywhere from $15 to $17 an hour. Someone like that could work into a position like that … and end up managing people. It can go up from there.

JM: $12 to $15/hour... Typically 50 hours/week.

MH: Between $12 and $13/hour to start.

JZ: Between $30,000 and $40,000 [salary] depending on experience.

Nathan Detwiler (left) and Cristein Flamm
LEONARDO CARRIZO
Clara Kolba (left); Kevin Walsh; Michelle Palacios
COURTESY OF RESPECTIVE STUDENTS
Students Evan Bertig (left); Marshall Pierce (bottom middle); Kaylee South; Hiring manager Jeff Murphy (above quote)
COURTESY OF RESPECTIVE INDIVIDUALS

Marshall Pierce, 23

Virginia Tech

Field of study: Environmental Horticulture

“I originally started school as a business major, but I wasn’t really enthusiastic about school until I took a couple of horticulture classes,” says Pierce. “I realized then that I’d rather be in school for something I loved. It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in college.” The college senior not only found his passion, but also has learned from many mentors throughout his education and with internships. “I have a handful of mentors and they’ve taught me to stay patient and to understand at such a young age I have so much time to work on things,” he says. “I took on a six-month internship knowing that it would put me behind in graduating from school. But it was worth it in the end by far because I didn’t realize I would like research so much, I learned a ton from it and have a career opportunity now.”

Pierce believes his fellow Millennials can be reached simply with better marketing. “One of the most unsung qualities of horticulture is the therapeutic nature of getting your hands in the dirt,” he says. “There’s so much diversity and purpose in the function [plants] serve, there are endless opportunities for people to enjoy some green life. I think people just have a fear of maintenance. I think if you can remove the fear of culture, growth and maintenance, it’s just like walking the dog, you just have to put some time into it.”

Nathan Detwiler, 24

The Ohio State University

Field of study: Agriculture within the Sustainable Plant Systems program and a specialization in Horticulture

“Originally I just wanted to own and operate my own vegetable growing operation. Although I am still definitely interested in vegetable growing, I am much more open to looking at all my [options]. Now I am considering graduate research, or international development work in agriculture. My experiences at The Ohio State University have really helped to clarify and prioritize my desire to help relieve people suffering from food insecurity. My long-term career goal is to combine my passions for growing vegetable food crops, developing sustainable agriculture methods, and getting food to the people who need it most.”

Cristen Flamm, 21

The Ohio State University

Field of study: Sustainable Plant Systems; specialization in Horticulture; minor in Plant Pathology

“I decided to pursue a career in horticulture because I am fascinated by plants. When I started college at the University of Cincinnati, I was not even aware that horticulture was a career option. My adviser at UC suggested I look into it, and since then I have regularly been amazed by the processes and mechanisms that take place inside a plant, unseen. The best advice I have received is to try it all (ornamentals, edibles, greenhouse, etc.). Even now, I still am not sure where I fit in horticulture … I had only taken horticulture classes in the edible horticulture field, and now I find that I am very interested in ornamentals as well. With each class I take, I realize how many paths I could take in my career.”

Kevin Walsh, 33

Texas State University

Field of study: Composting

In his fourth year working toward a master’s degree in composting, Walsh believes the biggest challenge in entering the industry is making a name for himself. “As a new person in the industry [compared to] a lot of people who have been in it for generations in their [families], it just seems like there [are] a lot of established operations going on, and so making it on your own really strikes me as the biggest challenge,” he says. To combat this, Walsh hopes to work with a small operation at first to make connections in the industry before striking out on his own. “I’d want to work under somebody who can really introduce me to the people in the industry either at a small farm, greenhouse, nursery or composting operation,” he says.

Walsh also hopes the green industry puts more emphasis on alternative fertilizers. “I would like to see a better effort for marketing of compost products, not just compost itself, but extracts and other kinds of organic fertilizers,” he says. “Because it’s kind of a niche market, it’s not really distributed at any big box stores like Home Depot. I’d rather see more of an effort to promote these true organic products.”

Darryl Sanford, 50

Temple University

Field of study: Horticulture

An engineer by trade, Sanford — a part-time horticulture student — is looking at a career shift in the coming years to spend more time working both on the ground and in the trees. “I intend to become a certified arborist,” he says. With the goals of owning a farm and nursery in his sights, Sanford hopes the horticulture industry gains traction through more consumer involvement and education at the primary level. “I would like to see horticulture taught at the elementary, middle and high school levels,” he says. “Perhaps if there was more of a push at that level, then the industry would see a boost in interest. Most kids today have never actually worked the soil. They really don’t have that.”

Michelle Palacios, 18

Kansas State University

Field of study: General Horticulture / Psychology

Palacios found solace in horticulture during a high school class, and is now setting out to help others through her studies in horticultural therapy. The field of study, which includes plenty of hands-on instruction, helps her retain information more effectively, she says. Palacios anticipates her biggest challenge being “breaking the Hispanic gardener stereotype. ... I’m Hispanic. I know a lot of people [say], ‘Oh, they’re just hard workers.’ And I’d like to be more of a leader versus just a ‘worker.’ That’s how people see us, usually.”

Clara Kolba, 19

County College of Morris

Field of study: Turfgrass Management

Kolba, a sophomore working part-time at a local grower/retailer, says she wants to stick to the greenhouse industry and open her own business. She’s found a lot of success at work by encouraging her superiors to order succulents and other interesting varieties younger consumers are searching for. And Kolba doesn’t take any resource for granted; she’s done her research on shows like MANTS and her local nurserymen’s association to ensure she’s up to speed on the latest trends. She believes her biggest challenge in the industry will be having people take her knowledge seriously as a young woman. “Hopefully I can get to that point,” she says. “And prove to my employers that I can [do the job].”

Sara Wallace, 39

Oklahoma State University

Field of study: Horticulture and Landscape Architecture

As a fruit specialist in Oklahoma State University’s Botanic Garden, Wallace has confirmed a passion that began when she started teaching gardening classes at a family farm in Virginia. “I think working with the public is really in my future, whether it’s teaching or sharing information with consumers,” she says. “Consumers need someone to be there as they’re buying things at a garden center to educate them [about] how to help these plants grow.” Throughout her education and work within the industry, Wallace has observed a disconnect between industry guidance and consumer knowledge. “There’s a consumer information gap, and people don’t know where to go to access information and fact sheets about what grows best in their area and conditions,” she says. “It would be really cool to have more compiling of information based on location or focus. That’s the hardest part as a consumer — to find user-friendly information that’s not commercially geared.”

Evan Bertig, 21

Pennsylvania State University

Field of study: Landscape Contracting

Bertig started in the industry the way many do: mowing lawns for pocket change in high school. But the Penn State junior says he realized he would need an additional business background if he wanted to continue expanding his operation. “I think the public perception surrounding the industry needs to change,” he says. “Not anybody can go out and design a successful landscape and have it work three years down the road.” Bertig says he wants to eventually hire a full team for his landscaping business and hopes to lead through positive motivation. “I want to be oriented around my employees. I’d like to have things like pizza parties every couple weeks to boost morale or after a tough job.”

Kaylee South, 22

The Ohio State University

Field of study: Horticulture; Crop Science

As a first-year graduate student working toward a doctorate in horticulture and crop science, South hopes to one day put her education to use teaching others. “I want to be working at a land grant university,” she says. “I love doing research and like the idea of working with students, and in extension education, to work with farmers and the community and answer questions about greenhouse growing.” Looking back at her undergraduate education, South says she did not realize the many pathways available to someone with a horticulture background. “Recruiting new students is a challenge,” she says. “People don’t really know what the field has to offer both in internship opportunities and hands-on experience [in the classroom].”