Industry must fight widening skills gap

Last week's meeting of the cross-industry green skills initiative heard the University of Reading's Martin Emmett highlight the critical shortage of production and technical staff facing UK horticulture.

This has emerged just as the Government, long content to leave horticulture on a back burner, has finally recognised the need to rethink its approach to the sector due to concerns over food security.

Likewise, the green space sector is facing a worsening skills crisis. Despite the growing recognition of the urgent need to protect and expand the green infrastructure of our cities in the face of climate change, the public spending squeeze is being used to force through new local authority structures that could wipe out the horticultural skills essential for green space design and management.

Now we hear that the Skills for Growth strategy, produced by Lord Mandelson's Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), threatens to deepen our skills crisis further by refocusing funding on priority areas deemed best to drive job growth - and from which horticulture is missing.

The potential threat to horticultural colleges and the industry those colleges underpin is clear. What is needed over the coming weeks and months is a sustained campaign with participation from employers and trade and professional associations from every corner of our industry to ensure that BIS corrects the fundamental error it has made and gets green skills at the heart of the Government's agenda to revitalise the economy - there is no reason why this can't be achieved. A clear precedent has been set by BIS's own Technology Strategy Board, which launched its £75m research fund for the agri-food sector in October in direct recognition of the need to support industries underpinning food security.

The task now, as ever, is to get the message across to Mandelson's policy advisers that supporting production horticulture also requires support for skills - and that a low-carbon future requires the expertise of green space professionals trained in horticulture. As Lantra's Madge Moore put it last week, there wouldn't be much point in having skills in nanotechnology if we can't put food on the shelves in Tesco.


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