Can the new Grow website deliver?

... and bring fresh talent into the industry? Kris Collins reports

The launch of the Grow website has provided horticulture with a new image fit for the 21st century by directing a new generation towards the full range of rewarding career opportunities across the sector.

Last month's official online launch is the culmination of over two years' work and co-operation among 12 of the industry's most influential organisations working as the Green Skills Careers Marketing Initiative (GSCMI), which aims to address the skills gap faced by all sectors of horticulture.

The result is a one-stop online portal into the industry, for people from all walks of life with a focus on three key audience levels - school leavers, careers advisers and those looking for a second career. The portal provides relevant and up-to-date information on horticultural careers, designed to utilise techniques familiar to users of social networking sites like YouTube and Facebook, to ensure horticulture becomes attractive to young people and accessible to those outside the sector.

To create a better image for horticulture among young people, the industry has first had to change its views and perceptions of its target audience and the final product follows an intensive period of research. According to GSCMI chairman Leigh Morris, this threw up some interesting findings.

"Traditionally, horticulturists have blamed poor wages as the main reason why young people do not want a career in our industry," he says. "However, research has shown that fun, fulfilment and satisfaction are important to young people in their career choice and we know that this is something horticulture can offer."

A web portal should be the first step towards making the subject appealing, he says. "We must then promote careers in horticulture in a way young people will better understand. Get them interested in careers in science, arts, technology, management and commerce, and then show them how these can be attained in horticulture."

Irish marketing and design specialist Idea was brought into the project to brand the new site in a format that young people can identify with in order to optimise interest and use. Idea managing director Ciaran Flanagan says the result is a simple yet memorable brand that defines the horticulture sector.

"We're trying to capture people's interest in an area that they may not have thought about before," he says. "Everything we offer through Grow has been made as simple as possible, while retaining enough information to get the message across."

Social networking sites like Bebo and Facebook show that the younger generation is very technically literate and confident, publishing views and comments on the web. "Image and brands are important to (young people)," says Flanagan. "They want immediacy and instant response. Online social networking, texting and music downloading are so embedded in their lives, though they might seem difficult to anyone else."

To tap into the "Bebo psyche", the Idea team has used aspirational, fun and interesting images of young, good-looking people enjoying different aspects of horticulture. "We're not trying to make horticulture sexy," Flanagan adds, "we're just appealing to the values important to the target audience."

Site developers early on saw that the campaign needed to be fronted by a figurehead that the target audience could identify with, while also being a respected person in the industry. Flanagan says BBC presenter and landscape architect Chris Bearshaw stood out for the role. "He encapsulates all the requirements of a figurehead and is an integral part of the brand," he says.

The campaign launch has brought an air of optimism to an industry keen to see the skills gap addressed. RHS director of science and learning Simon Thornton-Wood believes career development within the sector requires long-term commitment from employers and sees Grow as the catalyst for this. "People should be enthused about horticulture as a career for them," he says. "The Green Skills Seminars and now the Grow initiative bring a varied sector together to develop a powerful set of focal points for horticulture at a time when they are needed most."

To ensure its continued success, the steering group hopes to see as many horticultural businesses as possible backing the initiative with donations through membership and sponsorship. According to Morris: "We have a school pack developed but we don't currently have 20,000 of them ready to go. We will need more money to do that but the website is ready now."

The steering group meets again in January, when it is hoped that wider support will help to take the initiative to the next level. "Colleges are the ones spending on marketing horticulture to young people - it's a no-brainer that they should get on board with the scheme," says Morris.

Richard Watts, publishing director of Horticulture Week, which built and administered the Grow website, adds: "We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our community to help everyone do their jobs better and help our sector to thrive. Without attracting many more people into the sector we will be storing up problems for the future. Our staff and the people they talk to every day have an overwhelming enthusiasm for horticulture and most love the jobs they do. We need to get that message out in order to create sustainability within the workforce.

"The website allows us to continually update careers advisers and students while promoting all the industry has to offer in terms of training and career prospects."

See www.growcareers.info

HIGH-PROFILE SUPPORT

Grow figurehead Chris Beardshaw has first-hand experience of bad careers advice. His passion for horticulture was sparked by sowing a few seeds on a windowsill at the age of four. Knowing that was where his future lay, he was disappointed throughout school that gardening was viewed as an option for remedial students.

Even his careers adviser dismissed his interests, recommending a career in the Navy submarine corps instead. He explains how taking part in the campaign was a no-brainer for him and why the industry should show its support: "The Grow initiative is a starting point which I think will have the most phenomenal knock-on effect and bring an improvement across the industry. The benefits are hugely diverse. The website will appeal not only to a very broad range of age groups from eight to 88, but also across the social spectrum - we are dealing with a message that has to be put across to all people.

"If you get a greater range of individuals drawn into the industry, it stands to reason you get a greater and more dynamic range of individuals graduating and leading the industry in subsequent years.

"It raises the profile of a sector that has not always been very good at celebrating what it does. We are fantastically modest but I don't see any other industry sitting back and expecting the public to understand it.

"This is the time to stand up and say we do contribute in a very meaningful way, to raise the importance placed on horticulture. It will hopefully have a knock-on effect to the wage structure, which I believe is an important reason why it's difficult to attract the numbers we need - people see us as a poorly paid industry.

"I hope the website will fire people's enthusiasm and imagination, and bring a sense of respect and awareness.

"I also hope it will mean that horticulturists in all their guises are no longer the last people brought into a project. As a landscape architect I've lost count of the number of times a developer or architect will ring up during the final stages of a project and ask for some green stuff. Horticulture should be at the leading edge of those processes.

"The Grow campaign for me is about getting the message out, not being modest and celebrating what we all do every day with the support of the industry's 12 most influential institutions and groups in the country."

UPDATING HORTICULTURE

Bringing the sector into the 21st century for an internet-savvy audience, Grow careers and training information has been re-branded under new modern headings. Site users now have the following categories to search under:

- Plant science and technology

- Arts and design

- Business, production and food

- Heritage and conservation

- Sports, leisure and green space

- Health and well-being

JOIN THE GROW INITIATIVE

The Grow campaign needs backing and sponsorship to move forward in a sustained way. Different levels of membership are being offered to businesses looking to show their support and have their say in the future development of the initiative:

- Annual membership Costs £1,000.

- Steering group membership

A one-off payment of £5,000 allows your business to sit on the steering group and have a say on the campaign's development. Your logo will appear on the site's front page, marking your support and acting as a link to direct traffic to your web page.

- Annual college marketing membership Costing £7,000, it allows colleges to list courses in the online directory.


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