There are so many aspects to garden retail that the route into this sector of horticulture is not set in stone. Garden Centre Association (GCA) chief executive Iain Wylie explains: "It's such a varied sector that the path is not clear. A lot of the time it's about making the best impression once you are in the industry."
He continues: "My tip would be, if you get the opportunity, go and work in retail or a garden centre and if you like it start looking into what courses you can do - whether that's a specific horticulture course or whether it's a business-based course or retail type of course. Once you are in and working successfully, your talent will get noticed."
This was certainly the case for 19-year-old Fergus Pollard, who gained a place on Squire's Garden Centres' new two-year apprenticeship scheme after making a good impression on his colleagues during his seasonal role at the South East group's Twickenham branch.
"I had spent four months in the planteria during the summer and was fortunate enough to be kept on after finishing my seasonal work," he recalls. "I found myself really enjoying working with the plants and when I had an interview for the scheme I got the job."
Squire's highly values its employees and is one of several garden centre groups that invests in staff training. The group has taken on two new paid apprentices, Fergus and 27-year-old Nathan Syrett, and is paying for them to study RHS level 2 and level 3 horticulture certificates at Merrist Wood College in Surrey. Reputable courses, such as RHS level 2 certificates and diplomas, give people of all ages a good introduction to horticulture and are run by land-based colleges across the country.
Squire's HR manager Jo Ripley reveals that in addition to its new apprenticeship scheme the company has worked with RHS Garden Wisley to develop an RHS qualification specifically for Squire's. "Traditional horticulture is very important to us - our bread-and-butter lines are horticulture," she says. "We pride ourselves on our knowledge and our planteria managers have horticulture degrees."
Ripley adds that the main reason why Squire's set up its apprenticeship scheme is because of the difficulty it has had in finding staff, particularly those with some knowledge of horticulture. Firms such as Squire's and Wyevale Garden Centres (see case study, p27) have therefore "taken the bull by the horns" by creating their own training schemes.
Wyevale, for example, has worked with Worcestershire-based Pershore College to create an apprenticeship programme that has a strong focus on horticulture. Wyevale also has a bespoke e-learning horticulture course featuring more than 50 online modules that can be completed by all of its employees.
Squire's apprentice Syrett points out that perhaps the root of the recruitment problem lies in the fact that not enough people are aware of the job prospects that garden retail and the wider horticulture industry offer. "I went to school in London and horticulture was just not a career option," he says. "People need to know what a good industry it is to work in. You have to like plants and like helping customers - helping them make the right decisions. It's very rewarding. My customer service skills, gained from working in a pub before I took on this role, are completely transferable."
Homebase retail and distribution director Graham Heald points out that the Homebase Garden Academy was launched in 2013 to help address the skills shortage by giving people an insight into the great many career prospects offered by garden retail and the wider horticulture industry. The scheme, which was formed in partnership with award-winning designer Adam Frost, therefore exposes Academy students to all aspects of the garden retail supply chain.
"One of the things that we learned from year one of the programme was that people want to find out how they can have a career in the industry - not just in garden retail but also how they can work with people like suppliers and designers," says Heald. "We were trying to think more broadly about it - trying to tell the story about how broad the industry is. Young people want a job, they want to learn on the job and continue to develop. They want different opportunities and want to be able to travel."
All of the Homebase Academy students spend time at their local Homebase store, gaining key garden retail skills and taking part in Homebase's City & Guilds garden licence programme, an accreditation that is open to all Homebase employees to help them improve their retail skills and product knowledge.
The students also spend time each month with Adam Frost to learn about garden planning and design, plus another two or three days helping Frost to build a prestigious RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden. Moreover, the students gain an RHS level 1 qualification in horticulture and work with a variety of garden suppliers and manufacturers to develop detailed product knowledge.
As a result of its broad curriculum, the Academy has successfully opened doors for graduates such as Clive Austin, a former Homebase team leader who, thanks to his improved knowledge of horticulture, is now a buying assistant for garden plants in the Homebase buying team in Swindon.
Wylie adds that the GCA's annual Rising Stars contest also improves the career prospects of the garden centre industry's keenest employees. It sees newcomers take part in a series of workshops and three or four practical projects, with entrants being knocked out at each stage. The finalists then have to present to 250 delegates at the GCA's annual conference.
"It hopefully enhances your career - its something to put on your CV," says Wylie. "As a trade organisation we can only be supportive of keeping talent within the industry." He adds that GCA's Garden Retail Online Workshops (GROW) are continuing to grow in popularity. "We currently have in excess of 8,000 staff members from more than 90 garden centres who access GROW."
Case study: Wyevale Garden Centres apprenticeship programme
Wyevale's 20-month apprenticeship scheme, which started in 2012, is open to people of all ages. The prerequisite for getting onto the programme, according to training manager Pippa Hawkins, is "a passion for horticulture and an enjoyment of the retail side of horticulture".
She adds: "They want to progress within our business up to team leader or further if possible." The current apprentices are all paid the national minimum wage and the apprenticeship, which takes on groups of 15 people at a time, is open to both current employees and new recruits.
Students gain a level 2 City & Guilds work-based diploma in horticulture on the course, which was designed with Pershore College. "This course is not off-the-shelf because we worked with Pershore on choosing our units," Hawkins explains.
"The regional apprenticeship managers Mark Diggines and Ryan Simpson are two of our staff and they have full horticulture training so they support, assess and help train all of our apprentices," she adds.
There are 20 masterclass days in the programme that are carried out as two-day block releases. She points out that the apprentices work alongside the team leaders and horticulture managers so "they are very much general assistants - out in the planteria they are learning their plants, the procedures, plant maintenance, plant displays, pest and disease care and dealing with the public".
Hawkins reveals that the scheme has had some great success stories so far. "One of our apprentices is a visual merchandiser for head office for the planteria," she says. "Another person who finished in 2013 became a horticulture manager this year." Some of the apprentices have even gone on to do a level 3 qualification.
Me & My Job - Louise Aldaheff, manager, West Six Garden Centre
- How did you get started in the industry?
I went to North One Garden Centre for some plants, met (owner) Beryl Henderson and asked for something unusual. She asked me how I knew about that plant, we got chatting and she said: "Why not work for me?" I started one day a week for a year and then went full time.
- What advice would you give to others starting out?
You have to have passion and find somewhere that you feel fits with your own personal ethos. N1 is a place of excellence in plants and staff, and that resonated with my values - working at a place where everyone wants to do the best they can in a lively, engaged environment where you're constantly learning and people will share information. For me it's about finding good people to connect with in a gardening business and being around people who show passion.
- What are the plans at West Six Garden Centre?
I want to take it to the next level and build on last year, which was fantastic, build the team, bring in new people and offer more customer service. Garden maintenance is a critical part of the business and at the moment there's not enough resource in it. At N1 we're looking to refresh the site and have new French-style staging that Paul Holt found, and I want to bring in new suppliers and refresh a bit while working with existing suppliers.
- What are your plans for the future?
There are a lot of changes happening at W6 and N1 at the moment. I've been made a director in the last year and have a new level of responsibility. It's my fourth year as manager and I'm developing an understanding of finance by working more closely with the accounts. It's critical to what I do to remain on the shop floor. I'm meant to be fronting the business and making sure our customers get the best experience.
Garden centre staff career path
On-the-job training is standard across the industry. Some employers look for a mix of horticulture qualifications and retail skills. However, others see a "can do" attitude and willingness to learn as the most important characteristics. A degree in horticulture is a popular route but NVQ courses or national certificates in horticulture are equally valid.
For further details, please see www.growcareers.info