Jim Funai is Seeding the Future at Tri-C
Plant Science professor helps turn today’s students into tomorrow’s horticulture professionals
Jim Funai has a confession to make.
“I’m afraid of humans,” he said. “I’m much more comfortable talking to plants.”
This isn’t surprising, given Funai’s extensive background in the green industry. It all started at 15, when he worked at an apple orchard owned by his high school track coach. After earning a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from The Ohio State University, he began working as a landscape production manager. But an opportunity came along in 2009 that changed the trajectory of his career —and forced him to face his fears.
“I never planned on becoming a teacher,” said Funai, now an assistant professor in Tri-C’s Plant Science and Landscape Technology program. “In fact, I would have laughed at anyone who told me that’s what I’d be doing.”
Funai was in charge of in-house training at Wheeler Landscaping in Chagrin Falls when their human resources director told him about an opening in Tri-C’s Plant Science program. She thought it would be a great fit for him — and so did the College.
“I was overseeing a patio install in Solon, knee-deep in mud, when they called to offer me the job,” he said.
Funai inherited a program that seated between three and 10 students per class and ranked in the low 50s among programs accredited by the National Association of Landscape Professionals. By 2015, enrollment had doubled, and students began placing in the Top 10 at national competitions.
Today, Tri-C has the No. 1 two-year program in the country. It’s produced two individual national champions, and the team typically places among the top handful of two- and four-year programs.
How does Funai account for this success? “I don’t give them the option not to be awesome,” he said. “We’re here to be great and do great things, so let’s get to it.”
Funai’s down-to-earth approach in the classroom endears him to his students, while his expert knowledge and passion for horticulture inspire them to become top performers in the industry. While he brought home many state and national design awards in his past life as a production manager, these days his biggest reward is seeing his students win competitions and flourish in their own careers.
“I love seeing them develop over time into the rock stars they never thought they could be,” he said.
Among the many skills Funai, a certified arborist, imparts to Tri-C students is how to safely climb a tree. This may seem simple, but protecting one’s limbs while scaling a tree is a complicated maneuver. And it’s important because there’s a shortage of qualified tree care professionals in Northeast Ohio. In fact, there are hundreds of such jobs available within half-an-hour’s drive of the Eastern Campus, where Funai’s program is based.
“I’ll never be able to fill all the openings, but the ones we do fill, our students are making two to three times what untrained labor can,” he said.
That’s why Funai is working with Davey Tree Company to build specialized courses aimed directly at tree care. His ultimate goal is to become the top urban forestry program in the nation.
But that’s not the only job opportunity for graduates of Tri-C’s program. Plant science majors are prepared for careers in landscape design, urban farming, irrigation, lawn care, greenhouse management, plant taxonomy and more. It all depends where their unique skills and interests lie.
“Each student’s career path is different,” said Funai. “We learn what will bring them the most joy, and then we help them get there.”
Earlier this year, Funai was named president of the Ohio Landscape Association’s Board of Directors. The association is currently preparing to launch a workforce-development initiative designed to educate and recruit new employees to the industry. There is no doubt that Funai’s expertise in this area will contribute extensively toward this effort.
Funai and his team — lab coordinator Stacey Lorenz and program director Lori Zatroch — work tirelessly to enhance training opportunities and recruit participants. Instead of waiting for students to come to them, they visit local high schools to educate them about green careers. Interested students can also observe classes to determine if Tri-C’s program is right for them.
Above all else, it’s important to Funai that his students realize the significance of the work they do.
“We don’t have to apologize for what we do, for working in the dirt,” he said.
“The green industry is the answer to global climate change. We’re the ones who can control the narrative. And while we’re doing that, we can also make the world look a little better each day.”
This article can also be found in the Summer 2021 edition of Tri-C Times.
June 29, 2021
Beth Cieslik, 216-987-4538 or firstname.lastname@example.org