Q: I need to find a decent all-round gardener to assist in my maintenance business. I have tried the Job Centre and had well over 100 applications only to find that very few even wanted to come for an interview and those who did had no experience or were unwilling to start at 8am. How do I find good labour?
A: This is a problem across the industry. It affects every firm, whether landscaper or grower, maintenance company or nursery business. I believe it will get a lot harder because there are more people in work now than at any time in the history of this country. The private sector is very buoyant and according to the newspapers more than one million new jobs have been created in it - with many jobs lost in the public arena. While this is very good news for the country, it is not helpful to those seeking new or additional labour.
Setting about finding potential staff should be very straightforward in an ideal world. Job Centres should be seen as a resource centre for job seekers and those looking to take on workers. But, as you state, more than 100 people applied for a job they had no chance of wanting/taking due to a whole range of issues regarding distance and lack of ability. The fact that only four even came forward for an interview must be masking a problem on which I am not qualified to comment.
Stay on the right side of the law
There are so many things that an employer needs to know but is not allowed to ask under various acts and laws - so many prerequisites that are so obvious to us that they should not need to be stated. Yet we, as potential employers, are unable to ask.
For example, anyone seeking work as an experienced gardener should, in an ideal world, have at least a couple of years' practice working on site, otherwise how can they see the results of their efforts the previous season? How can they be sent on a pruning job when they have never used secateurs before? Yet the law states that is discriminatory to demand a minimum term of experience - otherwise school-leavers are disadvantaged by virtue of their age - and people may have learnt their trade through reading.
Common sense is the most basic of requirements in the horticultural trade, along with practical hands-on experience, working under the guidance of craftspeople, learning the trade and coping with and understanding varying temperatures, soils types and plant requirements of light, air and water.
In most cases, the employer wants an all-round candidate they can take on and offer a wage and career package, increasing with time and training.
The job you were seeking to fill was for an "experienced gardener", not a specialist of any kind, and therefore you should have reasonably expected to find one out of more than 100 to fit the bill. However, that was not to be.
Although I have retired from contracting, I still work very closely with the industry, mainly in the landscape world, and am also involved in maintaining large gardens and estates, often engaged to find a suitable person to fill a more senior position. I have always been very keen to help those who seek to help themselves.
Letters of introduction
I frequently receive letters of introduction from job seekers who are keen to introduce themselves with their personal CV and profile - not only from the highly qualified and those skilled at selling themselves but often from school-leavers and students or second careerists.
All have one thing in common - they are keen to self promote, and I warmly welcome their efforts. Every letter is replied to, filed and passed on if applicable to someone of my acquaintance who may welcome their enterprise.
Converting that thought to your efforts to find a suitable candidate, why not leave your details along with the scope and nature of the job with the Job Centre, asking only that would-be job seekers write in the first instance stating why they are interested in the position.
Mention no prerequisites - unless a driving licence is essential, for example - but invite them to introduce themselves and tell you what they can do for your company.
You may well be surprised at the breadth of talent that some people have, about which you would not have thought to ask. By giving them ownership of their input into the process you should be able to more accurately gauge their potential.
At the interview stage you will have a good idea about their abilities and you can concentrate on telling them about you and your company, how you see the future and their role in your dreams.
Such conversations can help to cement a happy and mutually beneficial relationship without worrying about breaching some act or law.
Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant. His latest book, The Landscaper's Survival Manual, is available from www.alansargent.co.uk.