Growers - Growth potential

Horticulture starts with growing healthy, appealing and affordable plants, says Jez Abbott.

Like most of horticulture, the growing sector has struggled to recruit and retain a skilled workforce - Image: HW
Like most of horticulture, the growing sector has struggled to recruit and retain a skilled workforce - Image: HW

All the fruit and vegetables we eat, and the plants we grow in our gardens and in public green spaces, have to be grown by someone somewhere. And people are becoming more aware of where and how these things are grown.

For many years, Britain has tended to import fruit, vegetables and plants from overseas. But the rising awareness of carbon footprints and food security is giving more career scope to people taking up commercial growing in this country. The result is an industry offering a range of opportunities for the sharp, creative and technology smart, who are willing to take up the challenge of practical, hands-on training on offer.

True, there is still a fair amount of "stoop labour" required to bring in some crops. But today's growers must be aware of pressing business issues like fuel prices and currency fluctuations, as well as water conservation and other measures to protect the environment.

Youngsters starting out in the industry - or people looking for a career change - have rarely enjoyed such opportunities, says Michael Britten, skills development adviser at the National Farmers' Union, which represents growers and farmers. He says: "Food security rising up the agenda has had a two-fold affect. There has been a noticeable change in attitude towards commercial growing, and a feeling that those entering it can carve out a useful, diverse and high-profile career. But the rising profile has also highlighted the need to improve training and give more emphasis on practical land-based skills."

Yet growing, like other sectors in horticulture, has struggled in recent years to recruit and retain a skilled workforce. This, however, may work in your favour, as keen and talented growers will have plenty of scope to establish themselves in a successful career.

Already, young people's awareness of the importance of food and plants is rising. The Royal Horticultural Society, the world-famous charity behind the Chelsea Flower Show, has been wooing schoolchildren with its Campaign for School Gardening, offering an educational network for schools across the country. Introducing children to horticulture at an early age, says the group, helps them to understand where food comes from.

For teenagers, the National Vocational Qualification, for several years the cornerstone of practical land-based training, is being overtaken by more flexible modular-type training to enable students to sharpen their skills on more relevant areas and interests. The Diploma in Environmental and Land-based Studies, launched last year, was hailed as a major step in equipping youngsters with the skills needed to meet today's environmental and social challenges. Three levels - foundation, higher and advanced - balance school work with hands-on training at a land-based or further-education college. This is a good deal for 14- to 19-year-olds who are keen to get out of the classroom and into the workplace.

Background work

Underpinning the Diploma is the Qualifications Credit Framework. This modular training format enables students and older employees to notch up credits in areas like plant propagation and people management, allowing them to tailor their training to their own aspirations, and learn at their own pace.

Eight levels range from the first targeted at GCSE students to the highest tier, equivalent to a PhD postgraduate qualification. Britten claims modular education is the training template of the future, meeting the needs of the fast-changing modern workplace.

But commercial horticulture is a diverse industry with opportunities at many levels. Choosing a relevant horticulture course, or landing a job straight from school, will require varying levels of skills and education from basic reading, writing and IT skills to A-Levels in sciences for those aiming for a three-year degree at university, horticulture or agriculture college. Most important, insists Britten, is enthusiasm.

Thanet Earth in Kent, a multimillion-pound glasshouse the size of 25 football pitches which began production last year, shows where the industry is heading. Humming with the latest in irrigation and climate control technology, it illustrates how advanced commercial growing has become. Kaaij Greenhouse UK is one of several firms growing on the site, employing 80 to 120 staff to grow 10ha of tomatoes. Most are school leavers, but the company also recruits graduates for biological testing of plants. Workplace training covers pruning, watering and planting.

A summer-holiday job with a commercial grower could work wonders for a school student or even a potential career changer keen to notch up experience. "It's not just young people moving into land-based sectors, but people in mid-life," says Britten. "And growing has one major advantage: it is relatively recession-proof. We still need to eat whether we have a job or not."

Much of modern growing of ornamental plants such as the bedding plants found in supermarkets, DIY stores and planted in parks, is also highly automated. But there will always be a demand for individuals able to cultivate the highest standards of specimen plants.

One of the world's finest botanical gardens, Kew in west London, runs what is arguably the foremost qualification in horticulture, the Kew Diploma. This is for A-level students with practical experience gained from working in a local authority parks' department or botanical gardens. It also runs a one-year trainee course and a three-year apprenticeship for four or five people a year. All of these courses offer important skills on the growing of ornamental plants.

Stewart Henchie, head of Kew's hardy display section, says students spend one-third of their time in the classroom and the rest learning a host of practical of skills. Apprentices, meanwhile, can undertake day-release study for another highly regarded qualification, the RHS General Certificate in Horticulture.

The Horticultural Trades Association, which represents ornamental growers, also sees promise in the sector. According to training and careers manager Tanya Robinson, the recession is prompting people to stay at home and spend time in the garden, boosting commercial growers of flowers and shrubs.

Careers in ornamentals range from production workers and spray technicians to supervisors, nursery managers and technical staff, but one thing above all else will set you on a successful career path regardless of job title, she says: "Attitude is key - showing an enthusiasm for being outside and a willingness to work hard, especially in spring and summer, are the most important qualities employers are looking for."

Training tends to be done on the job but the sector is beginning to see the reappearance of apprenticeships, thanks to the Government's investment in vocational training, she says. Graduate courses run by many land-based colleges offer higher-level qualifications for tomorrow's leaders.

Nurseries and other production businesses vary enormously. While there are many family firms, large growers may have workforces of more than 100 people, so training and career progression is varied. But those starting out as production workers or potters often find themselves in senior management roles within a few years.

As Robinson says: "Career progression will always be there for those who want it and are willing to work for it."

PAYSCALE
Typical salaries for the sector:
Trainee horticultural grower: £13,000
Horticultural grower supervisor: £18,000
Horticultural grower manager: £20,000-£25,000
Ornamentals production worker: £15,000
Ornamental supervisor: £20,000
Ornamentals technical manager: £30,000-£40,000

Qualifications

NVQ (SVQ in Scotland): Levels 1-3 are the main entry-level qualifications into production horticulture, which is now also available through apprenticeship schemes.

These will undergo some changes this year under the switch to the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), and the term "NVQ" will be dropped from award certificates - though it may still be used informally.


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