Melinda Knuth spent two whole summers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, but the extended stays were all about her career, not vacations.
Knuth twice accepted horticulture internships in Florida, first working with a hydroponic system at Epcot before and later returning after graduation to a more managerial position in edible landscaping at Golden Oaks Resort. She went from helping grow plants for the Living with the Land boat ride to preparing growing the vegetables chefs would use in their recipes.
Sound like different experiences? That’s because they are, and intentionally so. Knuth has always valued versatility, especially as she narrows down precisely what she’ll do when she’s working full-time in the industry. An interest in owning her own floral shop uprooted Knuth from South Dakota and placed her at the University of Nebraska, where she could study horticulture with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. After the Disney internships and her undergraduate experience, she landed at Texas A&M, where she’s now in the third year of obtaining her doctoral degree.
“It’s a really long, winding trail to how I got to where I am,” Knuth says. “I tried to do internships to try and find, ‘What’s my niche? Where can I really fit in to this industry and find a job?’ That’s how I ended up at Disney and that’s how I ended up here at A&M.”
Knuth didn’t just end up at Disney because they were the first ones to offer her an internship after months of applications. She actively sought an opportunity there and intended to stand out among her peers vying for the same spots. When she first visited Disney with Nebraska’s horticulture student organization, she let the hiring manager know to expect her resume in their stack. A week later, she followed up with an e-mail thanking him for his time, and when their internships were officially posted, she filed her application accordingly.
The manager remembered how straightforward Knuth was and offered her a position in a greenhouse.
“If you can make a unique connection, as in not just introducing yourself but also having a conversation with them that you can hop back on later … anything that can make you unique from other people who are also interviewing them, that’s extremely beneficial,” Knuth says.
Now she’s studying marketing and economics in the horticulture industry with Texas A&M’s Charlie Hall and Bridget Behe at Michigan State University. Basically, they’re observing how consumers perceive a company’s messaging, whether it be on advertisements, packaging, catalogues, or the way they generally present their products.
She tracks eye movement patterns at the university’s Human Behavior Lab, which just opened in July. Knuth says this type of research is implicit and can’t be measured by surveys or polls. She’s found that in this industry, most people prefer to buy products when a lot of information is provided on the signage.
“In a lot of marketing and a lot of packaging, simplicity is king,” Knuth says. “We see that with Apple and we see that with most companies, but that’s not necessarily true for our industry. I don’t know if it’s an anomaly or because it’s a live product, people need that additional information to feel secure to buy it.”
Her ever-changing career path has always fixated on her passion for horticulture, and that much Knuth knows will remain the same. What she’s still figuring out is what she’ll do after completing her dissertation — will she work for a larger industry corporation studying data analytics, or will she find a role in academia?
It’s still unclear what job she’ll stick with, but Knuth’s confident enough in her different experiences that she can’t wait to continue the process of figuring it out.
“As an 18-year-old making plans for the next 50 years, I thought that I had it figured out,” Knuth says. “Now that I’m a little bit older, maybe (owning a floral shop) wasn’t the ultimate plan. Who knows? Maybe in 20 years, I’ll have everything together and have an idea and eventually start my own business in the future.”
The author is assistant editor of sister publication Lawn & Landscape magazine.
BRED BY DANZIGER
How long has it been on the market?
New introduction for the 2020 selling season
Grows to height/width
10 inches x 16 inches
Best in gallons, hanging baskets and combinations
Consumer care requirements
Keep evenly moist
Looks great mixed with other brightly colored plants (like red or pink petunias) in a display, however, a solid block of bright yellow Goldstar will always stop them in their tracks.
Day neutral, heat tolerant, great for late spring and summer season extender combos
There’s a stark contrast between James Langley’s garden and the chain-link fence surrounding it. Brick walls and barbed wire enclose the greenery, but the plants are lush year-round, sustained by the toasty Huntsville heat and the people who live behind those walls and wire at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Ellis Unit.
Langley goes by Scooter, in part to differentiate himself from his father, James Langley Sr., who first started the prison horticulture program Scooter runs today. When it began, Lee College was simply trying to figure out which trades could most often lead to careers post-release. Langley Sr. initially became the horticulture instructor by pitching the school on the variety of different jobs an inmate could get after their release. From working in a nursery to lawn care, that diversity in opportunity stuck out to Lee College and Langley Sr. was hired.
For more than 40 years, the Langley family has taught landscaping techniques to incarcerated students. Inmates who agree to take Scooter’s classes are in a classroom or working in the field Monday through Friday for six hours at a time, earning certificates as horticulture technicians and in landscape management.
If they complete both — each one takes about six months of class and field work — students can enroll in further academics to earn an associate degree in science and horticulture or business through Lee College, which employs Langley and is still partnered with the prison facility today.
“It’s just like regular school. They’ve got to be there; they’ve got to do the assignments,” Langley says. “We have teachers that come in and teach the same curriculum, the same stuff that they do in the free world. It’s not a ‘give me’ kind of deal. They actually have to go to school.”
That education is not only therapeutic; it’s practical. Langley’s goal — and the goal of similar programs across the country — is to get these inmates a second chance at a career beyond prison walls.
A new life
After his release last May from the Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell, Ohio, Charles Ellis decided he was going to start fresh.
With a close friend, Ellis started Backyard Detail, a two-man landscaping business. He had just completed three years in prison for his drug trafficking conviction, and says he wanted to take ownership and be proud of something he created. He was released before he completed his facility’s horticulture course, but he did receive his Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association certification.
Ellis also knew what type of uphill battle he faced after his release. He says some people will never get another opportunity at a career after serving their time in prison. Maybe they had one bad night or made one bad decision that cost them a lifetime’s worth of chances. This is another big reason why he took matters into his own hands and started Backyard Detail.
“To go to a job interview and when they ask you if you have a felony, to have to say yes and to sit there and explain and to hope that somebody could look past that, it was a big fear of mine,” Ellis says. “People make mistakes … but I would like to see jobs to actually look past that and see a person for who they are. Give them a chance.”
Robert Scott spent several years teaching horticulture and sustainability at a Midwest prison. Now, he’s the executive director of Cornell University’s Prison Education Program, which serves four prisons and roughly 200 incarcerated students.
Scott says reformed citizens who line up a job after their release are less likely to find themselves back in prison. Studying recidivism can be difficult because there are plenty of scenarios in iwhich someone is reincarcerated based on parole violations that aren’t technically crimes. However, Scott says nuanced analyses show these programs (not just in the horticulture field) are effective at landing good jobs and encouraging social behaviors compared to those in prison who don’t participate in an educational program.
And while Scott never guarantees potential employers that an employee will work out, he says many of them acknowledge their new opportunity and make the most of it.
“Who you were yesterday doesn’t determine who you will be today or tomorrow,” Scott says.
The second chance
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Administrator William Eleby works in the office of reentry and enterprise development, helping to connect inmates with jobs before their release. He organizes interviews and has inmates upload their resumes to a database that goes live up to 90 days before their last day in prison.
Eleby says only inmates who exhibit good behavior are allowed to participate in programs like the facilities’ horticulture classes.
He assesses whether a hiring company would be a good match for the person leaving prison. If, for instance, the company is located near a lot of bars and the student went to prison with an alcohol problem, Eleby’s going to advise against hiring that particular employee. He has also denied companies that don’t want previous offenders to really be a part of their team. If a company isn’t willing to give an employee from the program a legitimate chance at contributing something meaningful, Eleby may turn the company away.
“If you hire someone that is a restored citizen, then they’re restored,” Eleby says. “We don’t need you to say, ‘Well, we’re going to put them in a corner. We’re going to separate them from other employees.’ That’s not a good fit for us and I don’t think that’s the right company that we want to have an agreement with.”
While many business in the horticulture industry are having trouble finding reliable employees to hire, those that are connecting with prisons may be uncovering a worker who’s not going to complain about his or her work circumstances. ODRC horticulture instructor David Brennan, also a contractor with Brennan’s Plants in Athens County, Ohio, says his students will often do the physical labor that others aren’t willing to.
“We don’t mind getting cold, hot, dirty,” Brennan says. “Sadly, the percentage of the population that wants to do that is 10%, if that. As a contractor, we have a very limited pool we can draw on.”
Brennan also says many of his students will later be appreciative of the second chance, and Eleby says some feel particularly loyal to the companies that help provide them the opportunity to have a career after they leave prison. Ellis says it was gratifying to have his own company — and freedom — after his release.
“It was something to be taken away from your entire life and your entire world, to be able to come out of that and say, ‘I can do this for myself,’” Ellis says. “It means a lot. It made my life different.”
Good for the soul
These prison horticulture programs aren’t just about lining up jobs for convicts — they’re also about establishing the right path to recovery. The Insight Garden Program is largely based in California, and Executive Director Beth Waitkus has placed her program into several facilities on the West Coast , along with another in Indiana.
Insight Garden places an emphasis on the therapeutic element of the program, liberating the incarcerated by allowing them to design and nurture their own gardens. What’s most important to Waitkus is that her program’s students feel like they can take control of their own reformation and have a spot outside that allows them to express creativity and take pride in what they create. Their year-long curriculum covers environmental literacy in the first semester, then follows up with classes on permaculture gardening, leadership and reentering society.
“People learn to respond rather than react, which is often the reason some of these people end up incarcerated,” Waitkus says. “They may [be] under stress and not think of their consequences before they happen. This whole curriculum is woven together with the idea of mindfulness.”
The Insight Garden Program is less traditional than horticulture programs in most prisons. There’s not as much of a classroom as there is a circle in which students sit to hear facilitated discussions. Teachers ask students questions to see what they think rather than tell them what they need to know. They spend a lot of time meditating and mold their program on action-based learning, including art, skits and other presentations. The focus is on themselves, not their career.
“Gardening is the metaphor,” Waitkus says. “How do you garden yourself? How do you weed out the things that no longer serve you?”
But even for programs that are more traditional, the byproduct of learning about horticulture is treatment. Langley’s program in Texas is based on Christian ministry and emphasizes the importance of helping others in their therapeutic garden.
Scott mentions the profound importance of watching the incarcerated accept responsibility for their careers outside of prison.
And in Ohio, Brennan says working out in the field allows for restoration that can’t be taught in a classroom.
“Correction is the bars. Correction is the order,” Brennan says. “But [this is] rehabilitation. We are taking people who have the desire — who want the job — to go out, get a job and turn away from a life in prison.”
Eleby recommends that companies reach out directly to prison facilities if they’re interested in hiring who he calls “reformed citizens.” Employers should define what type of worker they’re seeking and what kinds of previous history would and would not be acceptable at their company. For example, some companies may be willing to take on somebody who went to prison for drug possession but not someone who was convicted of stealing from a past employer.
And for companies interested in aiding the programs by volunteering instruction or resources, Eleby says reaching out and asking questions about that facility’s specific horticulture programs will help. Often, it’s beneficial for both potential employers and inmates to connect while they’re still serving out their time in prison. Eleby says he also educates companies on how convictions work, which he hopes eliminates potential stereotypes. Still, he also recognizes that sometimes, it’s best for companies to meet potential employees firsthand.
Additionally, Eleby says he can’t guarantee one of his students will work out, but he advises each of them to not blow their second chance. Any slipups could cost not only themselves but others dearly.
“You don’t want a company or a business to have a bad taste in their mouth because of your selfishness,” Eleby tells students. “You’re representing every restored citizen and every offender regardless, because others will be judged based on their interactions or relationship with you.”
Langley says that in the 11 years he’s served as an instructor in the horticulture program, he’s heard from several former students who have gone on to establish better lives. Dozens have lined up jobs or started their own successful companies, and Langley says recidivism with the horticulture program is the lowest among other trade programs Lee College offers inmates. Maybe students saved up to buy a new house or car, or they earned promotions at the companies they started with after their release.
Those calls and success stories are the most rewarding part of the job, Langley says.
“A lot of these guys have never had an actual career, an actual full-time job,” Langley says. “That’s why they’re trying to find these trades that sound interesting to them, so that when they get out, they can better themselves, better their family, and give back to society.”
The author is assistant editor with Lawn & Landscape, a GIE Media publication.
At the end of 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor reported unemployment rates are holding firm at 3.7%. This is a nearly 50-year low. If you’re an employer, you’re familiar with what this means: It’s really tough to find great talent right now. To avoid this, expand your pool of candidates by considering those who don’t have a college degree.
One of the biggest misconceptions among employers is that people must hold a college degree to be a viable candidate for certain positions. It’s just not true.
Not only are there plenty of smart young people who are choosing not to follow the traditional path, those who do follow it often lack the skills employers need. It makes no sense to cling to old hiring practices when we live and work in a whole new world. Let’s change the conversation to the education of our workforces. Not only are colleges failing to deliver candidates with the skills businesses need, many talented young people are bypassing college altogether. They see the astronomical price of a four-year degree and are unwilling to cripple themselves financially to attain one. Plus, they believe (and rightly so) that they can find better educational options and hone their skill set elsewhere.
So why do employers still believe traditional education is needed? Because the presence of a degree is a signal — a psychological shortcut that enables us to make good decisions without doing the exhaustive research needed to investigate every option. But signals can lose their meaning which has been happening for some time now.
The, “I have a degree, therefore I am smart, hardworking and well-to-do” signal made sense back when only 5% of males born in 1900 had a college degree. Today, nearly 40% of working-age Americans hold degrees. Many degrees are useless to employers. Curricula are disconnected from the needs of today’s marketplace and college typically fails to develop needed skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication.
If you insist that the person you hire have a degree, you might be missing out on the perfect candidate.
Shift your mindset to override the “degree” signal. Take a long, hard look at what really leads to success and performance, recognize that university degrees aren’t the key and revise your job postings to reflect what actually matters. You won’t be the first. In 2015, Ernst & Young professional services in the United Kingdom removed degree classification from its hiring criteria, citing a lack of evidence that university success correlated with job performance. Similarly, Laszlo Bock, former head of people operations at Google, went on record saying that grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring,” and currently, as much as 14% of employees on some Google teams never attended college.
Drop the application tracking system, or at least switch off the filtering related to education. While you’re tweaking your hiring process, lean more into the assessments and simulations that actually give a sense of what candidates can bring to the table. When Ernst & Young did this, they saw a 10% increase in the diversity of new hires.
Look at candidates who have pursued more progressive, cutting-edge options. Many students are now choosing hybrid programs like the one offered by Minerva Schools at KGI, or a “last mile” training offered by MissionU, or a program like Praxis, whose slogan is “The degree is dead. You need experience.”
Consider ditching the resume requirement. People often embellish the truth (or outright lie) on resumes. Instead, ask candidates to fill out an online application with behavior questions and job-related tasks. This provides a much better picture of whether they’ll be able to perform. Plus, some candidates might have the exact qualities you want, but don’t come across well on a resume.
Ask candidates to perform a task that simulates the job. These could be built into your online application. For example, if you’re hiring a writer, ask them to complete a short writing task. This is a good way to weed out candidates who lack the technical proficiency to do the job, which will make narrowing down the list much easier.
For more complicated jobs, consider paying a candidate to take on a project. Or hire someone on a contract basis to make sure they’re the right fit before extending a more permanent offer.
During the interview, focus mostly on chemistry and culture fit. By the time a candidate gets to this phase, they will have demonstrated that they have what it takes to do the job. What the interview can really tell you is how well you’ll get along with the person.
Cultivate the things that matter by developing a culture of learning and growth. While it’s important to find the right candidates, it’s even more important to make sure you continue to develop people after you hire them. There are many great books on this subject. Also, consider engaging training providers such as Mind Gym, The Center for Work Ethic Development and my own company, Mirasee.
Danny Iny is the author of “Leveraged Learning: How the Disruption of Education Helps Lifelong Learners and Experts with Something to Teach.” He is a lifelong entrepreneur, best-selling author, and CEO of the online business education company Mirasee.