The Landscape Group has nudged onto the Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers list, which is good for the firm and great for the sector. The list, announced late last year by the National Apprenticeship Service and City & Guilds, flags up excellence in businesses that employ apprentices. Recognition is important - eking out the investment needed to ensure that similar achievement filters across landscaping is more so.
Skills shortages in the sector are hitting both design-and-build contractors and maintenance companies. The former are struggling to cope with demand for skilled staff as the economy picks up. The latter are being squeezed by public-sector grounds contracts that are so tight on budgets they leave little room for investment in staff training.
Last autumn landscapers told Horticulture Week business was booming so much in parts of England that companies risked postponing jobs. The reason? The ongoing skills shortage that left Hillier Landscapes managing director Richard Barnard frustrated: "We've stuff in the pipeline that's been held off. We need skilled hard and soft landscapers, horticulturists and drivers."
If the sector-wide picture is worrying, there are beacons of light such as the Landscape Group. It is one of a growing number of landscaping companies that are pumping money into college and on-the-job training. For this reason, firms such as Gavin Jones (see box, p27) and Glendale also dedicate tens of thousands of pounds to training.
Such a sentiment chimes with Quadron Services' training and project manager Elaine Callaghan. Training represents a substantial financial investment by Quadron, not only in terms of the initial costs but on ongoing continual training and assessment of its workforce. Each contract has a qualified trainer, taught in-house, to help with on-the-job training in mowers, tractors and safety.
"We also do external training and have 80-100 people in long-term study," says Callaghan. "Staying competitive is key to sustainability. Keeping staff motivated and up to date with trends and technology helps us achieve our goals. Nationally recognised training helps keep our staff on top of industry change and gives us a competitive edge."
All this requires investment, tough for budgeting clients and contractors in a "fiercely competitive" market, says one landscaper who was told by a council it had £500,000 a year for grounds, all to no avail. A rival contractor killed off all the competition with a £350,000 too-good-to-refuse offer. "We have to take pride in what we do and price appropriately," ventures the unlucky contractor.
Peter Cosgrove has been here before. The general manager for Glendale Liverpool recalls the 1980s era of competitive compulsory tendering that destroyed skills levels and succession planning. Although Liverpool City Council is facing a new budget crunch, a contractual clause on delivering grounds care from the joint venture between Glendale and the council safeguards training costs.
Following a workforce sustainability strategy, in 2007 Glendale Liverpool rolled out an apprenticeship programme that "re-engineered" the entire workforce and since then has eased more than 40 apprentices through five-year training courses that echo the traditional parks apprenticeships. Initially it had an "open age group", the oldest apprentice being 51 years old.
However, a recent shift of focus targets school-leavers and the "NEET" group - youngsters "not in education, employment or training". The £50,000 annual training budget includes Liverpool mayor funds and cash from the Government as well as match funding and help from strategic partners such as Myerscough College.
Last year, Glendale recruited its 101st apprentice and first female trainee at Merseyside, 16-year-old Ellie Jeffry, one of 30 young people based in Liverpool. Each apprentice gets their own mentor and on-the-job training, with many also opting to undertake NVQs. Most of those who complete their apprenticeships with Glendale remain with the firm. It boasts a 95 per cent retention rate.
"This is a £5.5m business and we can dedicate resources to manage and deliver the programme - and by investing in training we will be very secure. We haven't axed training, as happened across the country in the 1980s, and will come out at the other end with a highly-trained workforce capable of delivering services right across Liverpool."
John O'Conner is also building for the future, offering workplace diplomas in amenity horticulture level 2 and 3 in partnership with local colleges. Training targets apprentices of any age, including existing employees, and lasts 18 months. Apprentices work on English and maths as well as gardening, sports grounds and streetscape work.
"Last year we supported 15 trainees, eight of whom progressed to seasonal positions," says managing director Matt O'Conner, who with operations director Neil Cain is an ambassador for the National Apprenticeship Service. "We were the first company in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire to sign up to the Government's extended work-experience scheme working with Jobcentre Plus."
Willerby Landscapes health and safety manager Colin Caplehorne also sees the long-term benefits of training and says, within reason: "There is no limit on the budget for training. If we need it, it's ours." Last year he sent 40 people on courses for use of mowers, strimmers and blowers.
Willerby, which used apprentices during its contract for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London, ensures staff do courses on dumpers, diggers and working at height. Staff carry Construction Plant Competence Scheme and Construction Skills Certification Scheme cards to prove they are trained and qualified.
"It's my job to find out what staff should know for NVQs and apprenticeships," says Caplehorne. "But what we want from prospective trainees is not so much technical knowledge but keenness, ability and willingness. The benefits of well trained staff go beyond solving the problem of skills shortages. Good training can bring business benefits that help to improve on-site efficiency and cut costs."
The route to in-house training at Gavin Jones
Yvette Etcell, Business development and human resources director, Gavin Jones
We used to run NVQ qualifications using external advisers but it became apparent there was a disconnect between different syllabuses, given we were a national organisation and it's hard to get support across the UK. We already had six qualified assessors for NVQ in all our departments: domestic gardening, commercial construction, landscape management and maintenance.
"I led a steering group to come up with proposals on what we would expect from an operative as a contract manager on a Gavin Jones job. We wanted a level in excess of City & Guilds standards leading up to a diploma.
"We decided plant identification and plant structure were critical for all our staff including receptionists and accountants because what we do is horticulture - everybody needs to focus on that. Staff must learn 60 plants including Latin names in the first year.
"We created proper certificates and presentations and took on a skills trainer, Bryony Mills, who visits all our sites on a weekly basis to support learning at a very personal level. Everything is explicitly set out so people understand what they need to achieve to become not just a competent operative within three years but highly proficient. This is linked to a clear career path.
"But it's not just operatives. Managers, senior managers and directors also train. All this means that people stay longer at the company and there's a strong learning culture in our organisation. Meanwhile, when people come to leave they take their skills sets with them, so if everybody is training the whole industry benefits."
Key factors when setting up internal training
Culture change Staff unused to computers, electronic training packages or learning "soft skills" such as communication and time management can be resistant to internal training, so identify people who can or want to balance training with the day job.
Price up training When you price up a job allow an annual amount per person for training. Explain why it is important and try not to compromise, but make sure that it is relevant to the contract. For instance, avoid fine-turf maintenance if the grounds contract is for a supermarket landscape.
Network with trainers Build up strong links with training organisations such as Lantra, City & Guilds and land-based colleges to check up on syllabuses, training modules and the time split between on-the-job training and classroom learning.
Equal opportunities Provide training opportunities equally within the existing workforce because this can be essential in retaining key staff.