Employers will need to set themselves up to benefit from the Government's apprenticeship levy, due to be introduced in England in April, "otherwise it's just a tax on your payroll", Hadlow Group deputy principal and chief executive Mark Lumsdon-Taylor said at the National Fruit Show on 19 October.
"The Government will fund apprenticeship training and we have put together a response to that," he said. Employers with a payroll of over £3m will forfeit 0.5 per cent of that minus a £15,000 "levy allowance", but this can be clawed back via an "e-voucher" funding scheme for apprenticeship training.
The college's contracts manager for apprenticeships Jane Burtenshaw added: "It affects everyone, whether you have apprentices or not. For some here it will be a significant amount and the money is only returned to your business if you spend it on apprenticeships, otherwise you will lose it. We can help you reinvest that back to raise skills in your business." Hadlow is offering to "take away the bureaucracy" around accessing and implementing the e-voucher, she said. "We have that service set up and ready to go. You can start now."
Burtenshaw: apprenticeship levy will affect everyone - image: HW
Lumsdon-Taylor said: "You could try to do it yourself but we can do it better and for less money," adding that as an employer with more than 1,400 staff Hadlow Group "will have to do it too, but we already do".
The scheme fits with its wider aim of "owning" training for the UK fruit sector, he explained. "Part of our role is to bring young people and career changers into the industry, making it attractive and even sexy." As a move towards this, Hadlow opened its own secondary free school, Hadlow Rural Community School, in the college grounds three years ago. "We gave up trying to work with existing schools and opened our own," he said.
Bee Farmers' Association (BFA) general secretary Margaret Ginman said the first three apprentices are about to qualify from its "world-class" scheme, introduced in 2014 with support from Rowse Honey, helping to ensure that fruit growers have access to skilled pollination services.
"There are challenges in keeping bees and given the age profile of bee growers our members were worried skills were being lost," she said. Designed in consultation with Cass Business School, the "tailor-made" scheme mixes practical experience and classroom teaching at the BFA's own fully- equipped learning centre. "We try to send them to Australia or New Zealand in winter," she added.
"It currently has 13 people on it, none have dropped out and we are aiming for 30. We have two applications a day and apprentices can start the scheme any time." Those successfully completing the programme are awarded a diploma towards excellence in bee farming by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers.
The BFA has more than 400 members, typically with 100-300 hives, added Ginman. "There is a pollination deficit in this country, both from wild and managed pollinators, and we are doing our bit to help that. Huge numbers of growers use the services of our members, who take a targeted approach to maximise yields."
Also on training, NIAB EMR, formerly East Malling Research, launched its new specialist training programme at the show. "We are doing world-class science and we have decided to complement that with world-class training that the industry can plug into," said operations director Ross Newham. "Our starting package consists of pheromone trapping and monitoring, pear sucker management, and spotted-wing drosophila (SWD) monitoring and cultural control - all areas where EMR has done unique, leading work that people can come and learn to apply in their businesses."
He added of SWD: "Growers are aware of it and are doing their bit to control it, but they still have to keep up to date with the science. It's here to stay and until we get a silver bullet we will need a range of hygiene and control measures, which we are continually evaluating." The training will largely take place in winter "when people have more free time", he added. "It's not something that EMR has traditionally done. But we have been pleased with the response so far."
The Kent research station was taken over earlier this year by NIAB, which also manages the Artis industry training programme. "Artis has a huge number of training programmes, many in arable but some in fresh produce too, and we slot into that quite nicely," said Newham.
The labour market post-Brexit was also a topic at the show. Terry Crosswell, employer services manager at labour supplier Concordia, said: "There are some signs that workers are not so easily found. Other labour providers and growers say it's been more difficult even in the second half of this year. But the issue of them being not welcome has been overplayed. Growers do welcome them. There is no issue there."
He added: "A bigger factor is the strength of the pound, which is particularly low at the moment. That means their earnings will be less than in recent years and that will affect their decision whether to come here or, say, Germany. Other European economies are seeing growth now and here the labour market is generally tighter, which will concern growers."
Looking further ahead, Crosswell said: "Whether a points-based system is put into place depends on whether the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) perceives a shortage of labour in the sector. Because of the large numbers of EU workers we've had there hasn't been any need for this. The Government may now ask whether that has changed, and MAC would likely say 'not fundamentally'. The alternatives if there is no freedom of movement with the EU would be a visa system negotiated with individual countries. It would be a ball game between the Government and the sectors which are dependent on bringing in workers."
Labour shortages "can creep up on people", he warned. "It gets more difficult each year and then some places don't get filled. I'm not worried yet, but it's of concern, more so than in recent years."
NFU horticulture board chairman Ali Capper, who was interviewed by broadcast media at the show, said: "The media want to know why you can't get local people to do the work. Universal credit is supposed to let anyone sign on and off but it's not now likely to go live until 2021-22."