Mt. SAC is a great source for career building

Photos Courtesy of MT. San Antonio College.
Field trips, such as this one to a sod farm, allow students to observe different aspectsof the turf and landscape industry and see potential job opportunities.

Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC), located in Walnut, Calif., serves 20 communities and nearly 1 million residents in San Gabriel Valley, drawing nearly 39,000 students each year. The largest single-campus facility of California’s 110 community colleges, it offers a variety of noncredit courses, along with 82 associate degree programs, 141 vocational certificate programs, and numerous associate degrees that articulate with baccalaureate-level university programs.

“Our core value is to enhance the personal skills of each student so they can accomplish anything they strive to achieve,” says Brian Scott, a professor of horticulture and the agricultural sciences department chair. “That may be upgrading their knowledge in a specific area through a single course, or earning an associate of science degree in preparation for a job opportunity or to apply toward a degree in a four-year program. Our current fees for California residents are $20 a unit, that’s $60 for the typical three-credit class.”

Nearly 75 percent of the students in the various horticulture programs are already working in the industry, taking classes to improve their skills. Those owning their own businesses are working on improving their efficiency and becoming more profitable. About 25 percent are students who are changing careers later in life. The remaining students are just out of high school and seeking specialized training as an entry into the job market.

Students are encouraged to test themselvesagainst students from other universities.Here, the Mt. SAC turf teams, withBrian Scott, advisor, and Steve Dugas,adjunct instructor and coach, prepare forthe Student Challenge at a conference. Aspictured from left to right: Ryan Rosebeary,Giovanni Murillo, Brian Scott (advisor),Steve Dugas (coach), Noe Cardenas,Hector Ramirez, Tom Skelton, Chaz Perea,Geoff Miller, Ed Schmachtenberger, PatEscalera and Rick Guerrero. Mt. SAC encourages its students tobecome active in industry associationsand attend conferences. These studentshad the opportunity to visit the athleticfields of Santa Clara University as partof a conference-related tour.
 
The Mt. SAC turf teams placed first and third in the two-year program category of the 2009 Student Challenge. The two, four-person teams and the alternate for each are pictured here along with their coach and advisor. Pictured from left to right: Steve Dugas (coach), Ryan Rosebeary, Ed Schmachtenberger, Giovanni Murillo, Chaz Perea, Rick Guerrero, Tom Skelton, Geoff Miller, Hector Ramirez, Noe Cardenas, Brian Scott (advisor) and Pat Escalera.

Certificate programs offered within the horticulture program include: interior landscaping; landscape design and construction, landscape equipment technology, landscape irrigation, landscape and park maintenance, nursery management, tree care and maintenance, sports turf management and park management. Associate degrees are offered in: ornamental horticulture, park and sports turf management, equipment technology and agribusiness.

Everyone teaching within the vocational programs has spent a portion of their career working within their industry in something other than a teaching position. Scott says, “We draw on that background to incorporate a component of the business side of horticulture into all of the classes, along with the technical information and skills.”

Most of the classes combine classroom lectures with lab work. There’s a class size limit of 24 for these combination classes, while straight lecture classes will top out at 36. Some of the classes in the equipment technology program have a 12-student limit for safety. Every piece of equipment used in the industry that has an engine is covered within this program. Students learn the operation, maintenance, diagnostics and repairs for gas, diesel and hydraulic systems.

Matching such a wide range of classes with the schedules of those already in the work force requires great flexibility, therefore, Mt. SAC offers night classes. Up to 98 percent of the horticulture program lab/lecture classes follow the block format, running from 5:30 to 10 p.m. one night each week throughout the 16-week semester.

Scott says, “Most of our students take two classes each during the fall and spring semesters. At four classes a year, it takes two and a half years to complete a certificate program, and at least twice that to get an associate degree. There’s a work experience module required for each of the degree programs, which takes additional time to complete. With the majority of our students working full-time jobs, the traditional three to four-month internship can be impossible to schedule. We work with the students and industry companies and facilities to arrange scheduling that fits the needs of both the students and supervisors. Many of the nurseries are good at handling flexible hours with part-time employees. We’ve set up weekend schedules on sports fields, including those at the Home Depot Center under the supervision of Kyle Waters. Eric Hansen even put our students on his game crew at Dodger Stadium.”

With the high percentage of Hispanic residents within the area, Mt. SAC has many Spanish-speaking students. Scott and his staff encourage these students to become skilled in English, and they urge their English-speaking students to become fluent in Spanish. Scott says, “Those working in any aspect of the green industry in California will have both Spanish and English speaking staff members and clients. There will be greater opportunities for those able to communicate effectively in a bilingual environment.”

Scott works with an advisory committee—representing all segments of the horticulture industry—which meets each November to review the various classes, making sure they are relevant and up to date. Part of the annual meeting is planning a career nigh, which is held each May. Local high school students are invited to attend, but the main participants tend to be current Mt. SAC students. During the first part of the evening, four speakers each address a specific part of the industry, with the speakers and topics changing each year. The 2009 program will focus on skills needed to find a job, covering interviewing techniques and what it takes to make the best impression to sell yourself in a very competitive market. Companies and facilities with potential jobs display their information.

With all the emphasis on combining horticultural expertise with sound business principles, the Mt. SAC student placement rate is phenomenal, and the student connection doesn’t stop there. Scott says, “Learning is an ongoing experience and we encourage our graduates to maintain connections with all of the networking contacts they’ve formed throughout their careers. With a broad group of active contacts, they can always find the missing link whether they’re looking for the solution to a problem or an individual, product or service to enhance their business.”

A group of Mt. SAC students pose in front of their trailer, a traveling advertisementfor the agricultural sciences and horticulture programs.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.