After advertising for a new employee Pattison said most applicants were woefully under-skilled, despite having the paper qualifications for the job. The Bournemouth-based designer and director of Janine Pattison Studios (JPS) told Horticulture Week that general skill levels are dire, with graduates particularly weak on horticulture and computer-aided design (CAD). Many are "overconfident" in their ability but "crumble" once she digs deeper. Those that show promise have usually done extra study on their own.
A student who has paid a large sum to train "should be able to join a design practice and be up to speed very quickly", she said. "You should have some good horticulture knowledge, plant identification, an understanding of soil - something like RHS level 1 - and you should have hard landscape knowledge at least to know simple things like falls on a patio so the rain doesn't run into the building. If they're not taught that, you risk people coming out of college saying: 'I know everything,' then get on site and land themselves in deep water."
While in some cases this could be partly attributed to poor-quality students, Pattison also believes colleges set students up with an expectation of being self-employed when in fact they are "on the first rung". They are "vulnerable" heading straight into self-employment and risk being sued by clients, with many becoming disillusioned and leaving the industry.
New employees cannot be expected to know everything, she said. Even within JPS, each staff member brings different skills to the team. Some are more creative, others more technically proficient. Pattison is a plant expert while co-director Denise Wright is a "wizard" with CAD. JPS also runs regular training to keep staff up to date with new products and changing industry practice. But all staff need the basics and too often students fail to learn them in college.
Instead, Pattison has heard of students spending half a day learning to use Twitter or spending weeks discussing garden history - useful background but arguably not essential to employers. One employee came to her with just one day of CAD training, yet had been told she was ready to set up her own practice.
"If you walk into my studio, everybody's got a brand new 27in Mac because we couldn't operate without CAD," she added. "But a lot of colleges don't really get involved teaching CAD at all."
Planning regulation knowledge is also often missing. "I've seen a number of designers come up with beautiful designs that would never be approved by planners," she said. "If you present something to the client and they say: 'That's lovely, I want it,' then you go to the council and they say no, you've got a big problem."
Pattison emphasised that she was not singling out particular colleges, and good ones do exist - but they are hard to compare without a standard curriculum or external criteria by which graduates are judged. Ideally an independent exam body would ensure that students have truly reached the standard, because Pattison believes colleges would be loathe to fail students who have paid hefty fees.
An employers' forum would be a good start, said Pattison. "As employers we have found the colleges don't engage with us and say: 'We're training garden designers. What would you as employers like to see? What skills are you looking for?'"
With colleges competing over a shrinking pool of garden design and horticulture students, those that show their students are quickly employed by good practices should in theory attract more students, Pattison pointed out. "It takes time - they need a long-term view. But if you don't ever start, nothing will change."