Toronto Star column – published February 7, 2015
“The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” ~Sydney J. Harris
The drain in the kitchen sink was plugged so I did what any writer would do and called a plumber.
Dave the plumber arrived at the prescribed time and took about 15 minutes to find and fix the problem. I love dealing with professionals! They make life so easy. As he reached for his boots at the front door I asked him the obvious question, “You busy these days, Dave?” to which he answered, “No problem there. Seems that there is more work than ever. Truth is, pretty soon it will be easier for you to get a heart surgeon than a plumber.”
Dave reflected on a lack of commitment on the part of the government to training and education for incoming professionals in ‘the trades’ as part of the problem. No doubt, a general lack of interest on the part of young people to choose ‘the trades’ as a career path is another part of this equation.
The story had a familiar ring to it. I was born and raised in the world of horticulture. My Dad, Len, was introduced to the wonder of plants at the impressionable age of 16 by a neighbour, John Weall, who was a newspaper customer on his street. Growing up I would hear my dad lament, during normal dinner-time conversation, the lack of qualified talented gardeners. I had my challenges finding similarly qualified people in the 80’s and 90’s when the payroll of our company, Weall and Cullen, reached more than a thousand souls.
And here we are in the second decade of the 2000s and not much seems to have changed.
But it has. And that is what I would like to talk to you about.
Have you, or someone you know, thought about a career change? Is there a young person in your life who is lost in the quagmire of career choices, without a hint of where to go from here? Are you middle-aged (or know someone who is) and looking for a change in lifestyle as it relates to your paid work? Are you about to retire and looking for something to fill the gap between this period of able mind and bodyness and true ‘retirement’? This column is for you.
Let’s put something into perspective: the world of horticultural employment here in Ontario is vast and complex. According to Landscape Ontario, the horticultural trades association in this province, employment opportunities are great and they are supported by the following facts:
1. the horticultural industry generates over 7 billion dollars of economic activity annually
2. horticulture provides employment for over 70,000 full time people in the private sector and almost as many in the public sector for a total of about 130,000 full time jobs
3. the farm gate value of horticulture as an agricultural crop is greater than a billion dollars annually in Ontario
4. there are 12 post secondary institutions in Ontario that provide education in the field of horticulture
To put this into perspective, the auto industry in this province supports about 450,000 full time jobs, according to Brad Duguid, the Minister of Economic Development and Innovation. This equates to about 20% of all manufacturing jobs in the province. While no one can argue the importance of the auto industry as an economic engine, the fact is that it is highly subsidized by government at all three levels. The federal government alone pours over $250 million into it each year through the Automotive Innovation Fund.
Horticulture, on the other hand, does not receive a recognizable amount of support from any level of government, with a few exceptions like research in Vineland. This industry is a net tax payer by a very large margin.
Perhaps the best way for me to convince you that horticulture is a serious career choice is to provide a personal story. Tony DiGiovanni is the Executive Director of Landscape Ontario. He has retained this job for over 25 years and is so highly thought of in the industry that association members set up a scholarship fund in his name, the proceeds of which help young people get a start in their horticultural education.
Tony tells his story this way. “I came to the world of horticulture in an indirect way. I left high school before graduating to try to ‘make it’ as a musician. Being immersed in a world filled with drugs and sleaziness quickly shattered my naivety.
“Sitting in the back seat of my girlfriend’s (now my wife of 37 years) father’s car I found a plant catalogue and was impressed by the colourful pictures of plants. The colour and natural beauty caught my eye. It was the beginning of a wonderful and fulfilling career.
I was accepted as a mature student at Humber College in the Landscape Technology course. However I still had doubts: what kind of job would this course lead to? What would I do all winter?
“I remember sitting on the floor of the library at Humber College anxiously thinking about my future when it hit me. At that moment I had an epiphany that changed my life. I made a choice to immerse myself and do as well as I possibly could. My attitude changed that day. I became an excellent student as I had learned an important life-lesson: that life is a series of choices.
“We have the power and the freedom to choose our response no matter what the situation.”
Tony graduated and accepted a job at his ‘dream facility’, the greenhouses at the Etobicoke Centennial Park. He worked there for 7 years, participated in building feature gardens at the Garden Club of Toronto shows and at the CNE. He appeared on his own locally produced tv show, wrote garden features for the Canadian Press and eventually took a job with Humber as a coordinator of the same program that he had graduated from years earlier.
It was while teaching at Humber that he received an invitation to apply for the Executive Director’s job at Landscape Ontario. And the rest, you could say, is history.
Except that I know better. Twenty years ago Tony met a woman of exceptional character and influence, Kathy Dembroski, who was the president of the Garden Club of Toronto. Together they hatched an idea to create an immense garden festival in Toronto called Canada Blooms.
The Garden Club of Toronto and Landscape Ontario joined forces to create the second largest annual flower and garden festival on the continent.
One more story.
Perhaps lacking in references to drugs and rock and roll, another familiar name in the industry has his own compelling story. Denis Flanagan is a Brit, whose first attempt at a college education was, “a miserable failure”.
He continues, “I needed a job and found one at a local plant nursery, mainly weeding and moving plants. The owner of the nursery, Arthur George, had become well-known in plant circles as an expert in hybridizing rhododendrons. Imagine having the ability to create a new plant and name it whatever you wanted?
“I became curious about the world of plants and decided to go back to college. It was an amazing experience (learning in the ‘hands-on environment’) of the British apprenticeship program. It inspired me to start my own company, to travel, to become a landscape designer and, later, a manager, writer, teacher, TV host and public speaker.”
Denis is the full time manager of membership services at Landscape Ontario. He developed in-house training programs for Weall and Cullen and has worked with me on in-house training at Home Hardware.
Denis is committed to encouraging world-wide travel experiences for horticultural students through an exchange program.
Tony and Denis are only two examples of how the world of horticulture provides a magnetic attraction for very personal reasons that can blossom into a full-blown, very satisfying career.
Next week: Horticultural education. Where to go and why.