Variety is key for successful horticulture internships

Spice up student internships with a variety of experiences and have some fun!

People standing in gardens
Michigan State University hires summer interns to help with the annual and perennial trial gardens. Photo by Daedre McGrath, MSU.

Like all of agriculture, the greenhouse industry struggles to find enough labor to get the job done. Not only is it difficult to find employees to work on transplant lines and in shipping, but it is also challenge to find new employees to move through the ranks to become the future leaders of the company. According to Greenhouse Grower’s State of the Industry report, most greenhouse operation owners are over age 55 (65%). Some greenhouse owners are preparing succession plans for their children while others are putting their businesses up for sale or selling to real estate firms where the land is highly valuable. Particularly within the last year, I have seen many shake-ups in greenhouse businesses in west Michigan. How can you, as a business owner or manager, prepare yourself for the future? How do you ensure that there’s a pipeline of new talent and passion coming into the business? Internships! Yes, hosting interns can be a time-consuming effort but hopefully you can recruit a bright, fresh person into the industry, and maybe even your business.

Internships are excellent opportunities for students to experience different work environments, learn new skills, and put their classroom learning into real world use. Most college students look for summer internships that relate to their field of study; this allows them to build their resume or pursue further education. Internships are also extremely formative for career exploration. The greenhouse and nursery industry provides internship opportunities for students, particularly at larger companies that have year around production and sales.  Businesses interested in starting internship programs should first consider how they can provide an excellent experience for a student intern.

How can you provide a student with an excellent internship at your company?

The key to an excellent internship is to provide students a variety of experiences. Some greenhouse and nurseries develop special projects such as trialing new cultivars of plants or performing in-house trials of different growing practices (e.g., biocontrol, plant growth regulators). Internships should allow them to cycle through different production areas or job roles. For example, a student works under a section grower growing plugs or finished plants for a few weeks and then moves on to crop scouting for another few weeks. There are un-glamorous tasks to all jobs, such as weeding a landscape bed or performing sanitation tasks.

Hopefully, if you mix educational experiences with repetitive tasks, the intern will still consider it a positive experience. Students at green industry businesses should also be exposed to the non-plant-oriented aspects such as merchandising, logistics, shipping and marketing.

The variety of experiences should not only encompass the tasks at the greenhouse, but internship programs should include some fun experiences too. For example, some internships include going to plant trial gardens, a national show (such as Cultivate) or to a local botanical garden. Other ideas include nights in the garden (employee appreciation), pizza nights or an ice cream social. If you have interns that are not from the local area, take them to local sites for one day (beach day anyone?). Make it your excuse to socialize with your colleagues too. These fun shared experiences build community and improve morale on the team.

To learn more about starting an internship program, check out, “Growing Talent: Creating a Mutually Beneficial Internship Program” on the e-GRO website.

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