RAPIDAN—Following a detailed discussion Friday with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th District, on the need for immigration reform to address workforce demands, representatives of a family-run greenhouse operation in Orange County called for increased efforts in public education to steer students toward careers.

“We need skilled people, we need managerial people, we need head growers and propagators in our industry and to reach into at a low enough level in the school system to position horticulture more attractively,” said Craig Regelbrugge, a policy analyst and lobbyist with Washington, D.C. based AmericanHort. “We don’t need everybody to graduate from college with a four-year degree anymore. Trades ought to be honorable.”

He was part of the more than hour-long discussion at Battlefield Farms, founded in 1990 by Dutch immigrant Jerry van Hoven as part of a greenhouse operation that’s now the largest in the state. His sons and daughter run various divisions of the business and several of them weighed in on solutions for their workforce shortage during the candid conversation.

The business has attempted to recruit high school students for summer or intern positions, but faces state limitations on employing minors.

“It’s the wrong approach because how you are going to inspire a kid to be excited about a career in an industry when the exciting parts are the parts that the government has deemed dangerous for a 16-year-old?” said Bill van Hoven, who runs Clearview Greenhouses, citing restrictions on operating tractors, for example. “It doesn’t make any sense.

“You have to have a little bit of trust within the management in the company. To deem every part of a job dangerous that allows it be enticing as a career you shot yourself in the foot before you even started.”

Young people are not going to get excited about a career carrying plants back and forth across the facility, he added.

“They’re never going to want to work in the greenhouse industry if they are going to do just the most boring parts,” he said.

There are plenty of local kids interested in summer greenhouse jobs, but government regulations hinder it, the brothers agreed.

Battlefield Farms Human Resources Director Julie Zeijlmaker, who grew up in Culpeper, noted government employment rules prevent minors from working in hazardous tasks such as riding a tractor or a forklift. She agreed a greater focus on vocational training was needed, including promoting agriculture as a job in which one can make a living wage.

“When I was in school, if you didn’t have a four-year degree, there was nothing available to you,” Zeijlmaker said. “I never thought there would be an option where you could have a vocation and be successful, but it is possible.”

She said various Battlefield employees had worked their way up and have a good career.

“It would be nice if at the school level that was promoted, too, because you can make a good wage, you can have a fulfilling life, you don’t need that piece of paper framed on the wall to say you’re worth something,” Zeijlmaker said.

Rep. Spanberger noted that way of thinking has involved a cultural shift, noting that Louisa County High School has made vocational training a priority for its students.

“Some school districts are trying to make a change, Louisa’s a big one. Some of the other counties within our congressional district are celebrating kids who are going into the workforce the same way you celebrate kids who get accepted to college,” she said. “I think we’re undoing a couple decades worth of damage because certainly my experience was the same … if you weren’t talking about college, there wasn’t the same sort of status or celebration about getting a job and being successful.”

Bobby van Hoven, with Battlefield Farms, looked to Europe for the example of a job focus for some students, starting as early as the eighth grade.

“Me in eighth grade they probably would have had me do something mechanical, start steering my education towards that, and I think what we’re talking about here is a major educational issue,” he said.

Bobby van Hoven said he did not attend college, but two of his brothers did.

“I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I just wanted to work. Having that direction was a little easier for me because that’s what my family was into.”

Some of today’s students, on the other hand, don’t know what career field they want to pursue and need guidance as well as the opportunity to do some hands-on work, he added.

“Nine out of 10 may say, ‘This is not for me,’ but that one out of 10 will say, ‘You know what? I don’t need to have the $150,000 of college debt – this is what I want to do,” Bobby van Hoven said.

He mentioned a potential greenhouse partnership with Eastern View High School in Culpeper.

“It’s limited what we can do. We can’t go out and build a greenhouse for Culpeper County schools, but you can steer them to the right people, in the right direction and try to help them understand that steering kids to vocations, whether it’s agricultural or mechanics, it’s a big win for everyone in the world that has people who use their hands,” Bobby van Hoven said.

Spanberger said exposure to careers is key “where you can feel that spark of excitement” and confident about a vocational path.

She lauded Culpeper County for hosting its Annual Harvest Days Farm Tour, saying the event is “just incredible for giving people just a glimpse of what’s out there” in terms of agriculture.

Anthony van Hoven, with Battlefield Farms, said it would help if middle school guidance counselors helped students better understand local career options.

“Saying, what are your interests, and helping to steer them to possible ways of achieving that, like they do in Europe,” he said.

Culpeper County Public Schools will host a Career & Technical Education Signing Day Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the county administration building to recognize some 30 graduating seniors who are entering the military or the workforce.

At its meeting next week, the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve $16 million to build a career and technical education high school on the campus of the Daniel Technology Center.

The CTE school is slated to open next year and will include courses of study such as agriculture, business and information technology, family and consumer sciences, health occupations, marketing, technology education, and trade and industrial education.

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