August 1, 2019
Rob Welsh
Rob Welsh

Learning is a career

ROB WELSH of Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., is a leading horticultural educator, chair of the B.C. Certification Committee and a strong Skills Canada supporter.

How did you get the horticulture bug?

I was actually recruited into horticulture by Susan Murray of BCIT. She phoned to say Capilano was looking for a teacher, which was the start of a career that built over the years. I love horticulture because my job changes every day — even every moment. You can’t plan for the next challenge when you are working with living, growing things, and I love the excitement of change.

Do you recruit new students into the horticulture program?

Not directly, although a recent program we staged to introduce students into the turf sector was a success. A vendor once told me he could never know if his efforts at a trade show worked until five years later. Attracting students is like that — it’s like planting seeds.

What can business owners do to attract new talent?

That is a tough one, because I have to say I believe in my heart this generation does not understand plants. Is it because of parents? School? Life? It is difficult to see the young generation step in. I think the answer is that society has to recognize the good value in working in the outdoor trades. I think contractors can also give young prospects a trial. “Work for me for a day, see what my business has to offer.” I see many industry people putting in lots of energy, including Paul Buikema, Cable Baker, Joe Bidermann and Mike Vandergugten.

Is digital distraction a factor in our labour shortage?

I hate electronics. They take so much of my day away. I see contractors all struggle with this, and I don’t know the answer.

What is horticulture’s profile within your academic community?

We have a high profile at Kwantlen. The university asks us for many things, and we always provide. I have three requests on my desk right now, things like fresh greens or flowers for events. Our engagement gives us visible presence, and the Kwantlen community appreciates our service and beautification roles. We also get asked questions that could be seen as political, especially about control products. We explain the difference between ‘Use me or abuse me.’ When there is a controversy, we will stand up and explain the proper use of products.

How has the green profession evolved over your career?

In some regards, I have to say it has devolved. When I started out as a small contractor, there was a tangible pride. We were always competing to be best. We had customers then who wanted the best of everything, from soils to plant material, and did not question the cost. Today perhaps budgets are leaner, and I see more short-changing, more cut-and-run. Of course, technology is more advanced today, and I have certainly seen some fantastic work.

Who mentored you?

Besides Susan Murray, Brad Clarke of Rainbird Irrigation was great. Whenever I talked with him about a problem, he helped me all the way through — a great fellow.

Can you tell which students will succeed?

After I have had them in the lab for two or three weeks, I watch how they listen. I look for engagement, and I can generally pick out the “long-termers.” I use a lot of strategies to engage them; leading, coaxing, sarcasm … former students like to quote
my “Robisms.” I use storytelling, and suggest playing out case studies to help students think outside of the topic. I take advantage of mistakes, and turn them into a positive experience — always making sure the student knows, ‘I am using your experience, not picking on you!’

What advice would you give new green professionals?

To learn from your employer. He hired you to do a specific job, and you have to be willing to listen and learn how he wants the job done. If you are not willing to learn, you will not be successful.    

If you have a mentor to recommend, or a question to suggest, please write to