December 16, 2021
Knowledge is power
James Canton (left) with Kelsey Harsh.

Steve Neumann, professor, Algonquin College

Steve Neumann

Scott Barber (SB): Why are you passionate about apprenticeship?

Steve Neumann (SN): If you’re in the industry and you like it, why not get the most out of it? Every trade and every job I’ve ever had, my attitude was always, ‘I’m going to do it the best possible way I can,’ and generally, the best way was to get more training and education. It’s all fine and good to show up at a job with a boss who says, “dig a hole hole here, fill this over there.” But why? Why are we digging the hole there? Why does it need to be that deep? Why do we have to put stuff back in layers? Why do we use this material? It just makes the apprentice that much more involved in what they’re doing. So they understand what they’re doing and it helps create a sense of knowledge for them, and it teaches them how to be safer in what they’re doing, knowing the how, the why, the when, and then it ultimately makes them a more valuable employee. More knowledge means more power, and the more satisfaction you’re going to get from your job. 

SB: Why should employers encourage their staff to pursue apprenticeship?

SN: You’re getting a more knowledgeable employee that understands their job better. Yes, they’re going to want more money, but they’re worth it, because they are going to do that much more work. They’re going to do things properly.

This is an industry where it’s very hard to find and keep staff. If your employees see that you’re willing to make an investment in them and that you’re willing to help train them for the future, I think in many cases, that builds a sense of loyalty. That employee is going to feel like you care about their future and well-being. 
 

SB: What are some obstacles that hold people back from the program?

SN: A lot of people are in this industry because they love working with their hands, and they may not like dealing with books or computers. They don’t like school. So they think, ‘OK, I’ve got through school, and now I actually have to go back and make that commitment.’ I think that’s the biggest thing for most apprentices, they think, ‘I can’t sit in a classroom five days a week for 12 weeks. It’s going to drive me nuts.’ 

What I always tell people is that apprenticeship is a very hands-on program. Yeah, you may be in school for eight hours a day, but you’re probably not going to be sitting in the classroom for much more than two. The rest of the time you are going to be working with your hands, doing practical work and experiments, getting your hands in soil, or on brick or concrete or whatever it happens to be that day. It’s very interactive and you’re very much involved. It’s practical, hands-on learning that you’re going to be able to put to use right away. You are in a classroom to discuss a concept, then you go right into a lab situation where you get to work that concept out, in concrete, or wood or with plants. 
 

SB: What do you tell people considering entering the apprenticeship program?

SN: Colleges and the Ministry [of Labour, Training and Skills Development] offer a huge amount of support for apprentices. You just have to reach out and ask. And once you have that red seal certification, it is recognized nationally. You can go anywhere across the country and they are going to recognize that you’ve accomplished this part of your education. You are certified, so we know you can fit right in with our group at this level. It shows that you’ve made the commitment to your training, and in this day and age, a lot of people are looking for that certification. Employers are looking for it, and clientele are looking for it too. They want to know they are dealing with professionals. 
 

SB: Have you seen apprenticeship impact lives?

SN: I’ve had students in my classrooms going through exercises and lessons who just look back at me with blank stares, not understanding. Thinking, ‘what are you talking about? Why are we dealing with this?’ And then I’ll run into them at a garden centre or a conference a couple years later and they’ll tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘you know what, that day we did that lecture, and I didn’t know what I was doing, it makes total sense why we were doing that now.’ I’ve had so many students that have gone on and come back full circle, saying ‘it didn’t make 100 per cent sense to me at the time, but once I got the full picture all together, I get it now.’

I’ve seen students go on to start their own businesses, and become big supporters of apprenticeship and education for their own employees, because they went through it and they realize how important and valuable it is.

James Canton, owner, Canton’s Mindful Gardens, Kinburn, Ont.

SB: Why is it important to you as a business owner to promote apprenticeship to your staff?

James Canton (JC): I know for my staff the apprenticeship program and training at Algonquin College has been a really positive experience. Being a seasonal business, they did have the opportunity in January when they were off to go back to school and sharpen the proverbial saw, if you will. They were able to improve their skills and their understanding of the industry and they have come back even better equipped to perform.  

And then once the schooling is over, by March and April, they are really raring to go. They are excited and energized. They come back very motivated. 
 

SB: What would you tell other business owners about apprenticeship?

JC: There really isn’t very much paperwork involved, and Landscape Ontario makes it painless. Basically, you have a few forms to fill out to validate who you are and that you are a competent sponsor. And then there’s the ongoing management and sign offs of the skills that are outlined in the guide. It’s not that much work, really. I think it’s a really good trade off.

It’s a good program. It’s a good way to maintain your staffing season over season, which is a big challenge in our industry. This is one good way to show that you are creating a career path. And also, clients appreciate it. Whenever I am putting in a bid for new business, I always include a section about our commitment to our staff and our apprentices. We do that for a couple reasons. One is to show that we are passionate about the work that we do and that we are that we are knowledgeable and educated. I think it has helped with our sales, because right from the get go, it creates a perception that we aren’t just here for a quick buck, that we’re here for the long term, and it shows in how we manage our staff. 
 

SB: What has it been like to be an employer sponsor of apprentices?

JC: There are a few reasons why I encourage apprenticeship. As a sponsor, it’s not a big investment, it’s reasonable. And you do get back an employee that has a better skill set and who is very motivated. I think one of the reasons why they get really motivated is that they are with their peers, and I don’t think there are too many people who participate in the program who don’t really want to be in this industry. So, you’re with people who are where they want to be. They are passionate about their jobs and the industry. 

Kelsey Harsh, Red Seal Certified Landscape Horticulturist, Canton’s Mindful Gardens

Woman raking

SB: How did you learn about apprenticeship?

Kelsey Harsh (KH): My mom told me about it. Once I had been working in landscaping for a few years, she saw how much I was enjoying being out in the field, and she found the program, which I hadn’t heard about before. It seemed like such a good opportunity to be able to work all season and then go to school during the winter. And the costs of the program were so reasonable. I don’t have any student debt, which is great. And even some of my travel costs were covered by grants, because I was living a bit further from the school at that time. 
 

SB: What was the program like?

KH: It was awesome. The thought of learning more about plants and soils and bugs, was a dream come true for me because I love that kind of stuff. It was a perfect fit and I really enjoyed every single day. The teachers were amazing and I made so many friends at school. They were like minded people that I really got along with, and it felt great to feel part of a community. Spending every day with the class, learning about what we all loved, was great. 
 

SB: Would you recommend the program?

KH: Absolutely, I definitely try to tell others about it when they are starting out. It’s really good to broaden your knowledge in this field, and there is so much to learn about plants, it’s never ending. Even if you’re not a plant person, you get to learn about hardscaping as well. 
 

SB: How has apprenticeship impacted your career and what are your goals for the future?

KH: I don’t think I would be where I am without it. I have a great relationship with my coworkers and I feel like I’m able to lead and guide them with plant knowledge as well as customer service.

I want to see where my current job is going, and to keep growing my knowledge. James is really big into education too, so I am doing a bunch of programs with Landscape Ontario this winter. I did the Fusion program last winter. I just want to continue to grow as an individual and in my career and I also want to inspire other women in trades as well as young people who are considering a career in horticulture. It’s a really great trade to be in.
This article was adapted from interviews featured on the Landscape Ontario Podcast episode “The Impact of Apprenticeship.” Listen at landscapeontario.com/podcast or on your favourite podcast app.

Pictures by Alex Stewart - @cantonsmindfulgardens and @aks_horticulture