Attracting young workers to careers in the floral industry, and retaining them, is a growing problem in all sectors. What’s at the root of the problem, and how do we fix it?
By Andrew Joseph
For many younger and/or recently graduated people, working in the floral industry seems like a dream career. But, as many have discovered, dreams and reality can collide—a harsh acknowledgment that the business can be quite demanding and not always the financially or emotionally rewarding work one might have thought it would be. Throughout the flower industry, especially in the retail sector, high turnover rates constitute a serious problem. After working for only a short while, many younger workers quickly become disillusioned and move on to jobs that pay more and/or that might not be as demanding and require them to work holidays and weekends.
Wages seem to be a primary cause of worker discontent across the U.S., in all industries. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center (PRC), a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., between February 2020 and February 2021, employment among those earning low hourly rates in the U.S. dropped from 28.1 million workers to 24.8 million workers—a decrease of 11.7 percent. By comparison, employment among middle-wage workers fell by only 5.4 per cent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, high-wage worker engagement remained at the same level.
As PRC’s statistics show, the floriculture and horticulture industries are not alone in having issues finding and retaining competent qualified workers, especially for lower-wage jobs with few or no benefits and unpredictable or haphazard work schedules. Some cite laziness, lack of a strong work ethic and a feeling of entitlement to high starting wages among younger workers as causes, and many add that enhanced unemployment benefits and government stimulus checks have compounded the overall labor-shortage problem.
Florists’ Review asked industry experts around the country—including many in the education field—for their take on how to attract young workers to our industry and increase the rates of retention and satisfaction among these people. While you may not like the findings—low pay being primary among them—there are things we can do to fix this and other problems that are endemic to our industry; it’s just going to require creatively rethinking many aspects of how we have traditionally done business.
CREATING INTEREST IN FLORAL CAREER PATHS
When it comes to the subject of floriculture and horticulture worker rawness or lack of ambition, educators in the industry say that’s not on them.
Cole Etheredge, Ph.D., assistant professor of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture at Mississippi State University says, “I have heard anecdotal comments from florists who say they are having a hard time finding employees because people are currently able to make more money on unemployment than they can make working at a flower shop.”
Regarding workers coming out of university with floriculture and horticulture degrees, Etheredge notes, “These workers tend to quit flower shops once they graduate, finding jobs with higher pay in related fields. At Mississippi State University, our goal is to create leaders within the floral industry. Our floral management curriculum is meant to educate aspiring florists in the art of floral design as well as business and management. Students are given real-world experience through internships; this allows them to better understand the work required within the industry before choosing to commit to it. Additionally,floral management students take a broad course load dealing with various subjects within the horticulture industry, making them hirable within other fields of horticulture outside of floral management.
“The students leaving the floral management program are often seeking to open their own flower shops or become head designers for event venues while some find their passion in related fields such as interior plant design,” Etheredge continues. “It’s my opinion that low wages are the biggest problem with keeping young, well-educated florists employed at flower shops. While students coming out of the floral management program might go to work in flower shops for a while, this is usually a stepping-stone to them moving on to doing something else within the industry.”
Society of American Florists
This summer, the Society of American Florists (SAF) launched its “Career Connection” learning hub(careerconnection.safnow.org), with five high-quality courses developed by the industry’s top trainers, teachers and floral pros. According to SAF Director of Career Development Kate Delaney, AAF, the courses dive into the fundamental subjects that will have a bottom-line impact on shop operations, including setting up new hires for success, reducing shrink, getting new hires on the design bench quicker and cross-training current employees.
Delaney notes that the SAF is dedicated to communicating the benefits and values of working in the industry and making a career in it. “The industry is multifaceted; it’s an industry with needs that include agriculture, logistics, design, marketing, sales and so much more,” she explains. “Students in business, accounting, fine arts, biology and horticulture can all find their places within the floral industry, and it is up to us to promote. The more the SAF can communicate the many areas in which a person can work and establish a career, the more appealing our industry becomes to those in the workforce.”
She also points out SAF’s recent partnership with Seed Your Future (seedyourfuture.org)—the national movement started by Longwood Gardens and the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) that promotes horticulture and floriculture to inspire people to pursue careers within the industry— as its biggest step to better broadcast the rich career possibilities. “We know that the connection with peers can have a positive impact on job satisfaction, with peer-to-peer learning; gathering in person or virtually to discuss struggles/successes;and opportunities to hear from experts on timely issues such as changes in government regulations, supply-chain slowdowns, consumer behavior trends, etc., can be done through SAF’s virtual events, webinars, live events, weekly newsletter, social media engagements and ‘Live Chat’ tool,” Delaney states. “We share any and all knowledge we have to ensure leaders in the field are better equipped to talk to those considering careers in the floral industry about the joys and benefits, as well as the challenges, of working in the floral industry.”
Texas State Florists’ Association
Dianna Nordman, AAF, is the executive director for the Texas State Florists’ Association (TSFA), which offers two levels of floral certification for high-school students, noting that horticulture is agriculture, and Texas is a big agriculture state with opportunities for employment.“In 2004, the TSFA saw generational floral businesses suffer, with second-generations doing well but discovering that third-generations did not want to proceed with their families’ businesses,” she explains, adding that the best way to generate freshness into the industry is to find and foster youth interest and involvement.
Creating the Level 1 and Level 2 “High School Floral Design Certification” program, the TSFA has gone into high schools to provide student—and teacher—training. Generally, students in Level 1 will learn the principles and elements of design while Level 2 takes it up a notch to include an asymmetrical triangle crescent corsage and a rose vase arrangement. To become certified, students must complete the yearlong floral design curriculum, which is approved by the Texas Education Agency, pass a TSFA-approved written exam and create two floral designs within a timed setting. (Discover more at tsfa.org/highschoolfloral.)
“The certification program is a win-win for both the students—as successful completion can be listed on graduation diplomas—and the school districts where it provides more value to a diploma,” Nordman says. “We have 300 full-time floral and design teachers in Texas, and more than 1,000, in total. Of the 13,000 high-school students who have tested in ‘Knowledge-based Floral Certification’ (tsfa.org/knowledgebasedcertification), 3,900 were tested for ‘Level 1’ floral design certification. We are creating the future; creating values of floral with our students.”
As for what happens afterwards, Nordman was succinct: “We give our students a career path. We know we are prepping them to work in a flower shop, but it is up to the owners to hire and train the students effectively.”
Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association
Director of Industry Certifications Merry Mott, of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), the largest state nursery and landscape association in the U.S., says that FNGLA also provides a path for student success. While the FNGLA represents Florida’s environmental horticulture industry—primarily wholesale nurseries, landscape professionals and retail garden centers—the association has very few retail florists as members. However, with the FNGLA’s career development programs and worker training, there is a fair bit of crossover relating to floriculture and the nursery segments.
“More than 15 years ago, the National FFA Organization (Future Farmers of America) began working with the FNGLA to encourage high-school students to learn more about the floriculture/horticulture industry in a competitive way,” Mott reveals. “It can be a fun industry, and the hope was to spark interest in middle-school and high-school students through career development events.”
(Learn more at ffa.org/participate/cdes/floriculture.)
A few years later, the FNGLA expanded its “Certified Professionals” certification program to high-school students. “We currently test about 500 students a year across 25 schools throughout the state,” Mott shares. “And those high-school teachers have earned FNGLA certification themselves. Florida’s ‘Career Education Act’ helps bring money back to the schools that participate in our certification program, which is integrated into the schools’ curricula. Yes, the certification does affect the school grade.” (Get more information at fngla.org/professional-development/certifications.)
Mott says that although students were being successfully taught the intricacies of the horticulture industry, the industry wasn’t necessarily successful in getting the students into horticulture jobs. “To counter that, in 2020, the FNGLA began an apprenticeship program to help create a career pathway for students in horticulture, landscape and irrigation,” she notes. “It’s a brand-new program—up and running—but we did start it in the midst of COVID-19. So far, we have placed three apprentices, which we acknowledge is low, but it’s a start.”
The apprenticeship program consists of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, and it’s not just grunt work, Mott explains. “We know those entering the horticulture industry have to experience the grunt work, and most know little about the industry. Via our programs, the FNGLA is trying to introduce the professional side to our segment. We hope that will encourage people to consider our industry as a worthwhile profession.” (For more information on all of FNGLA’s professional-development programs, visit fngla.org/professional-development/overview.)
TIPS FOR ATTRACTING AND RETAINING EMPLOYEES
How can we, as an industry, better combat young/new worker disillusionment? Educators are doing their part.
Are wages paid to young workers in the floriculture industry really the issue, or is it something else?
Teresa Lanker, chair of the Horticultural Technologies Division and coordinator of Floral Design and Marketing Technology at The Ohio State University has an opinion. She notes that student enrollments into university-level floriculture education programs have been on a downward slope in recent years, and there doesn’t seem to be an answer for it. But, as to why young worker retention has become a growing concern, Lanker holds nothing back.
“If we could do one thing to improve the worker situation in the industry, it would be to increase the pay. It would help florists find and keep quality employees; it’s something my students have told me. And they would know best,” she opines.
“Florists who can set their lowest price-point higher may find this as a way to afford the employees they need to support,” she opines. “Young workers want to move out of their parents’ basements and earn wages they can live on. As employees, they expect to be paid fairly and want benefits. Young people know this, and as evidenced by the current worker shortage across a whole swath of industries, they are in a position of power.”
Lanker says that she often receives calls from florists looking for students or graduates for employment, but
the well is dry. “It’s a tough time, and I really feel for florists looking for employees with floral backgrounds and skills, but they have to pay them,” she says, emphatically. She adds that because flowers are a luxury item, those who want them should expect to pay for that luxury.
“I think we’re making headway with that,” she continues. “Florists are presenting products in such a way that if they source beautiful fresh flowers from sustainable sources, have knowledgeable employees waiting on customers and provide well-packaged products, they are adding value to the entire shopping experience. Shops that tick all these boxes can charge more and, in turn, pay their employees well—and that will help keep them in the industry, even when they see a fast-food place paying higher wages.”
Lanker also advises employers to build a sense of community with their employees. “I’ve seen places where the employees and employer sit down and eat lunch together at a table every day,” she says. “This creates camaraderie and good feelings about the job, which is important, even if the pay isn’t exceedingly high. Young workers want to feel they are valued.”
Should florists look for skilled workers to create those fancy creations their shops offer, or should they simply take someone off the streets to do the simple little jobs that need doing? “You can take someone off the streets with no experience—perhaps someone older—who seems passionate and is looking for a new career, or you can take on someone who has an education in the field but maybe needs more time to gain speed and confidence,” Lanker advises. “The floral industry is interesting in that either one can be successful. Education and training are not required, but they should be rewarded.”
SAF’s Delaney adds, “Every job has its challenges—certainly in the floral industry, with working during the holidays being among those— but the floral industry is incredibly rewarding.
We provide products that increase happiness, reduce stress, etc., and today’s younger employees are looking for work that’s rewarding and that helps make the world a better place. With that said, it is important for employers to invest in their employees through development, continuing education, and providing benefits and compensation that align with the demands of the job. The floral industry is not alone in the struggle to offer competitive wages and benefits.”
Delaney says that at this year’s SAF’s “Annual Convention” in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 21-23, the organization plans to answer the biggest labor and recruiting questions facing the industry today. Glenna Hecht, HR guru and founder of Humanistic Consulting, will lead a session titled “Recruiting in a Post-Pandemic World,” during which she will discuss how floral professionals can rethink their hiring processes to be successful in today’s tight labor market. Three additional sessions presented by experts in the industry will also focus on attracting and retaining the best talent: “Incentive Plans that Motivate and Retain Teams,” “The Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion,” and “Talent Cheat Sheet: Put the Right People in the Right Seats.”
“We hope to provide everyone in attendance with the knowledge they need to build strong, motivated teams who are inspired to work hard to succeed,” Delaney explains. “Some of these sessions will be available virtually after the event, and we’ll also be launching a course on the ‘Career Connection’ platform called ‘Grow Your Team: Workforce Planning and Attracting Talent,’ to help floral industry employers be more successful with attracting and retaining talent.”
“The past year was stressful for people in all industries,” Hecht confirms. “Will the business be open or closed? Will people be able to come to work?” In the floral industry, as well as many other industries, there have been layoffs and supply-chain/ delivery issues, many of which continue today. The flower business is based on people, and now there is a shortage.
“During the pandemic, people assessed their quality of life and their work-life balance, and they now know the importance of both,” Hecht contends. “People want to work for companies that value quality of life, ‘walk their talk’ and exhibit consistency. It is not a line on a values statement;it’s a day-in/day-out practice. We used to think we were competing only against others in our industry, but these days, we’re not. If another company is willing to give workers more of what they need—work-life balance, higher pay, etc.—we must be aware and adjust accordingly. When you offer less pay than others in your area, you should not be surprised that you have trouble attracting and retaining employees.”
Hecht continues, “A great example of adjusting relates to younger workers. If they graduated during the pandemic, they have had little mentorship the past two years. If you hire them and are not going to provide mentoring, training or coaching, they will likely go somewhere else. Will they learn their craft from you? Quite frankly, many employers aren’t paying enough attention to that right now.”
If employees are hired and leave shortly after you have trained them, learn from the situation. What could you do differently or learn in the interview and hiring process? How could you modify training? This is an opportunity to look at your practices and adjust for the future. What has worked in the past may not work currently or in the future. If you want to attract and retain great employees, you must offer competitive pay, benefits, training, safety, compassionate relationships and a strong culture. This will result in business growth, innovation and a productive workforce. What’s wrong with that?
But, as Hecht states, it’s not just about hiring a worker; it’s about engaging him or her every day. The relationship you have with each employee must continue to evolve and thrive. It is not merely about ensuring that the day-to-day work gets done; it is doing your part to create an environment where your employees enjoy their work, feel a connection to the customers and the rest of the team, see potential career growth and opportunity, and want to continue working for your business in the future.
The flower industry is fortunate to have a number of organizations involved in attracting young workers to our industry. In addition to the career development and education programs cited in this article, there are others to be aware of and utilize—and support!
American Floral Endowment
The American Floral Endowment (AFE), based in Alexandria, Va., has created the “AFE Career Center” (afecareercenter.com), which provides detailed information about various floral industry careers and assists anyone considering such a career in determining which path might be the best for them.
In addition, the AFE offers paid internships (endowment.org/internships)
and more than 20 scholarships (endowment.org/scholarships) annually for undergraduate and graduate students. The organization also is allied with Seed Your Future, which you can learn more about at endowment.org/seed-your-future.
To keep young industry professionals excited, interested and growing, the AFE’s “Young Professionals Council (YPC)” (endowment.org/ypc) offers leadership and networking opportunities and encourages them to get involved in volunteer opportunities in the industry.
Learn more about the full range of the AFE’s career development and education programs at endowment.org/careers and endowment.org/students.
Produce Marketing Association
The Produce Marketing Association (PMA)—primarily an association for the mass-market floral and produce industries—has a division called “Center for Growing Talent (CGT).”
The CGT offers a “Careers Pathways Program” (pma.com/events/cgt-career- pathways) for college students, which offers a glimpse inside the global floral and produce industries, as well as the career opportunities, potential and rewards within those industries.
In addition, the CGT has developed a “Management Fundamentals for Young Professionals Program” (pma.com/events/cgt-young-professionals-management- fundamentals), which is a 12-month certificate program for young leaders in floral and produce.
Tennessee State Florists Association
Like the Texas State Florists’ Association, the Tennessee State Florists’ Association (TSFA) offers several professional development opportunities, including a partnership with the National FFA Organization (Future Farmers of America) in which TSFA works with high schools throughout the state to mentor those considering a floral design career. Learn more about this and other TSFA career and professional development programs at tnsfa.com/new-index-1.