Seven graduates of the twelve-week Branches to Chances program at the Delaware Center for Horticulture got certificates of completion Thursday.
The part-time program provides unemployed, underemployed and previously incarcerated individuals with horticultural and landscaping training and work experience. According to the Center’s website, participants are compensated at minimum wage.
The program also includes financial literacy and life skills training from several community partners, and concludes with an externship. This year's externship hosts included Longwood Gardens, Atlantic Landscaping Company and the City of Wilmington Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Center’s director, Vikram Krishnamurthy, says the nine-year-old program is competitive, and only accepts about a quarter of applicants each year.
Roger Collins is one of this year’s graduates. Before the program, he worked part-time with his own landscape service and was primary caregiver for his wife, who sustained serious brain damage from a car accident. When his wife’s health improved, he applied for the Branches to Chances program.
Collins starts Monday at a job with the Wilmington Department of Parks and Recreation through temp agency Integrity Staffing.
“It’s a temporary contract right now, but I think it can also turn into full-time employment,” he said. “I guess later on in the future.”
He’ll be making $10.10 an hour with the City’s Parks and Recreation, where he says he’ll be mostly weed-wacking and keeping city parks free of trash. He says he made $20 an hour with his previous landscaping service, and is open to starting his own business again.
Krishnamurthy says the goal of the program, which has focused on smaller class sizes in recent years, is to have a 100% program completion rate and for all trainees be hired upon graduation.
He says the last two years have seen 100% job placement at the time of graduation, and close to perfect graduation rates.
Krishnamurthy says one of the program’s challenges is finding trainees permanent jobs, since many entry level jobs in the industry are seasonal.
The Wilmington-based Davey Tree Expert Company hosted an externship last year, and hired one of the program’s trainees. Jason Gaskill, assistant district manager at Davey Tree, says the trainee still had a lot to learn after being hired, but that the Branches to Chances program was valuable.
“Entry level position in the horticultural and green industry, there really doesn't always need to be any specific experience or training,” he said. “So if anybody comes and has a certificate like this … that’s a head start over anybody else.”
Gaskill notes that the one week externship acts like a 30-hour interview, where trainees can prove themselves to potential employers. This makes a difference especially for previously incarcerated applicants.
Branches to Chances is funded by Comenity Bank, the Laffey-McHugh Foundation and a two-year grant from the state Criminal Justice Council.
A similar job training program through Interfaith Community Housing, also funded in part through the Criminal Justice Council, is under investigation by the Department of Labor for allegedly exploiting the labor of ex-offenders.