Contractor idverde is two years into a programme that will deliver 30 traineeships in Tooting Common for Wandsworth London Borough Council. The programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), is part of a wider HLF-funded £1.9m scheme to explore, restore, conserve and enhance the cultural and natural heritage of the common.
Author of the 2014 and 2016 HLF State of UK Public Parks reports and parks consultant Peter Neal says: "Both State of UK Public Parks reports and recent research by the University of Sheffield into green-space management contracts highlight increasing diversity in how parks and green spaces will be managed and maintained in the future, so any programme that can boost and broaden green-space skills through local apprenticeship or other training schemes has to be a good thing."
Fellow consultant Ken McAnespie says contractors should run training schemes not just to fill the skills gap but because it makes good business sense. Contractors often have, or inherit through TUPE, an ageing workforce and need to ensure that they train younger staff for the future sustainability of their business.
Project leader in Wandsworth, idverde assistant customer support director Andrew Kauffman, agrees. "It's quite an ageing workforce. There are not a lot of young people coming in. We've clearly got to do things to try and encourage people into the industry. This has been a really good programme to feed into the apprenticeship programmes we are committed to deliver."
Idverde is about to start recruiting for up to 15 seasonal staff, with the Tooting trainees going for some of the jobs. As well as Wandsworth, the company also has nearby contacts in Croydon, Southwark, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kingston and Kensington & Chelsea.
"We tend to use agencies a lot less now," says Kauffman. "An agency could be drawing people from across London. They've got to get up at four or 5am to get into work. It's not sustainable."
Neal points out that for savvy managers schemes like this "can also be a means to tap into additional funding opportunities, capture current grant incentives being offered by the Government and demonstrate clear social return on investment, which can only help strengthen funding bids".
Idverde worked with Wandsworth on the HLF bid and has invested in a horticultural development manager to look at external funding opportunities and the company. "It's taking that partnership approach," Kauffman points out. "We'd like to focus a little bit more on improving skills and learning. We would actively go to talk to the client about it." McAnespie says this kind of proactive approach can lead to a contract extension or a good added-value offer when tendering for a new contract.
Additional social benefits
Head of parks, open spaces and cemeteries at Edinburgh City Council David Jamieson says clients always look for what additional social benefits contractors can offer. "If they feel able to provide horticultural training or grounds maintenance training to staff, that's clearly a benefit because it's hard for us to do training ourselves nowadays.
"A lot of our training we have to outsource. If a contractor is able to provide that, then excellent. There is a skills gap undoubtedly. We just advertised for about 20 new gardening staff. It's a mixed bag in terms of skills set. I would support any attempts to improve skills."
For Wandsworth the benefits are clear. Local people are finding a path into work, the trainees are gaining a connection with their local green space and they are a potential local labour source for the borough's parks. In addition, as part of the deal, the council is getting free training and staff time from idverde, which match funded the HLF grant with a payment in kind.
"Everyone needs a bit of a hand up every now and again. If the guys put in the commitment to do the course then we should do the same," says Kauffman. "We'd be happy to do it again." He adds that six weeks worked better than 12. "We found the guys are much more dynamic. With the 12-week course they settled working on a training programme. After six weeks, they went straight into applications."
The process has also been "a real eye-opener and a positive one" because some candidates needed support, adds Kauffman. It gave the idverde team a better understanding of some of the different backgrounds of the people. Sometimes the best candidates did not look ideal from their previous work history. "It made me think a bit more about the recruitment process and what we're looking for. We look at it with different eyes," he says.
He adds that delivering the programme has been made easier by a history of working with volunteers in the borough, meaning that idverde already had a good relationship with a number of the partners.
McAnespie says it is important that clients should ensure their contracts include proper long-term strategies and training plans - and, where they have long-term partners, clients should make sure their contractors are benchmarking to find out what others are doing to bridge the skills gap both inside and outside horticulture. "The bottom line is that the client is the one that pays for all the training, unless one or both parties are able to get some funding to deliver the training, as with the Wandsworth example."
Kauffman says the Tooting project will help idverde with future funding bids. "The HLF does look at the whole picture. It's quite a good case study. Candidates have to keep a diary and once they leave we still talk to them. We write references for them. The nice part is we've gone on the journey as well."
Benefits Skills and employment
The Tooting Common Heritage Project's Employment Skills & Learning Project helps local people gain new skills and employment locally as well as giving idverde a pool of candidates for future job opportunities. The contractor is working on the project with Wandsworth London Borough Council, Enable Leisure & Culture, SLIC Training and Job Centre Plus Wandsworth. Candidates gain a bespoke level 1 City & Guilds diploma in land based studies (environmental conservation), PA1 and PA6 qualifications in pesticide use and first aid training.
SUCCESS DELIVERING TRAINEESHIPS
- Thirty traineeships.
- Fourteen delivered to date.
- Four employed by idverde.
- Four employed elsewhere.
- One an apprentice with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.