Would you like to learn a craft on the job, get a day's formal training a week, receive a recognised qualification at the end, and be paid for it all the while? This enticing offer is what is making apprenticeships the route into horticulture for many young people who would rather focus on breaking into the world of work than spend more time in the classroom.
Apprenticeships were once the cornerstone of horticultural training with many of today's leading figures - including probably Britain's best-known gardener, Alan Titchmarsh - having started that way.
Local authority parks departments were always at the forefront of apprenticeship training and they are again today, with more than 1,000 people currently enrolled, and every month seeing another of the country's 434 councils establishing, or re-establishing, apprenticeship programmes.
According to sector skills council Lantra's industry partnership manager for horticulture David Winn: "The majority of parks workers are aged over 45, and the people with the skills are disappearing. We have calculated that 60,000 people will have to be replaced in horticulture over the next few years. This is a way for them to ensure those skills are maintained within their departments."
One difference between new apprenticeships and the traditional version is the amount of formal training and assessment. This can mean spending one day a week at a local college, having a college tutor come to your workplace or, in the case of larger employers such as Birmingham City Council's parks department, being taught at your employer's own training centre. This will get you certified in the sort of competences that employers want, such as health and safety, first aid and spraying.
Much of this has been boosted by extra funding from central Government, which sees increasing workplace skills as key to the country's future prosperity. This funding has also helped persuade employers in other sectors that have not traditionally offered formal workplace training to get on board.
Last year the Government also launched the National Apprenticeship Service (www.apprenticeships.org.uk), which lists vacancies that are available to aspiring apprentices, and offers background information. Therefore, if the descriptions of commercial growing, garden retail, landscaping, groundscare or arboriculture in the pages that follow interest you, you may find employers in these areas who offer apprenticeships, allowing you to hit the ground running.
The DIY and garden superstore chain B&Q, for example, aims to double its apprenticeship intake to 300 this September, and is now offering positions to people not already employed by the company. In keeping with its policy of supporting older people in the workplace, positions are open to those of all ages - indeed, one of its current intake is an Oxfordshire man aged 70.
Even small firms, which form the backbone of UK horticulture, are finding that tighter workplace regulation, and the increasing technical sophistication of many jobs, mean that "gang labour" is less of an option. For them, apprentices offer a way to bring on and retain staff with the specific skills they require.
Some employers have even gone down the apprenticeship route at the instigation of individual employees. So, if you're already in work, it's worth asking your employer if it's something they would consider.
A basic horticultural apprenticeship will take around 18 months, although this can vary from as little as one year to up to two years. Employers may want to give new employees a trial run in the workplace before committing to a full apprenticeship programme.
This will lead to an NVQ Level 2, which is generally considered to be equivalent to five good GCSEs, and widely recognised in the industry. But your training needn't stop there because some employers also offer Advanced Apprenticeships, leading to an NVQ Level 3, equivalent to two A-Levels, and even Higher Apprenticeships, which is equivalent to a Foundation Degree.
APPRENTICESHIPS - Facts and Figures
- 240,000 people started apprenticeship courses in the 2008-09 academic year, compared with just 65,000 in 1996-97.
- In the category "agriculture, horticulture and animal care" there were 5,200 starters in 2008-09, compared with 4,500 the previous year.
- Completion rates run at around 65 per cent.
- About three in 10 are "advanced apprenticeships" giving Level 3 qualification.
- The minimum wage for apprentices is £95 per week, but the average salary is closer to £170 per week.
- Funding for apprenticeships increased by almost a quarter between 2007/08 and 2009/10, to more than £1bn. The Government will fully fund the training element for 16- to 18-year-olds.
- The Government aim is for one in five young people to take an apprenticeship by 2020.