The age-old problem of attracting new people into the horticultural industry seems to grow ever more critical. What can we do to show the benefits and future careers that are available in gardening, especially for youngsters?
The way that horticulture has been viewed by the educational authorities has not changed for generations. When I was at school in the 1950s, all those deemed unsuitable to take A-level exams were instead given "rural studies" activities, which meant pottering around in the school’s allotment, where nothing was ever grown or harvested and was therefore considered to be valueless.
Today, as then, schools’ careers advice shows that gardening and horticulture require no skills or qualifications. It suggests that anybody can become a gardener, even the least academically able.
The ability to understand instruction leaflets and apply mathematical equations and solutions does not seem to be understood by those in charge of careers advice.
For at least the past 40 years, industry leaders have constantly challenged those responsible to try to understand the fantastic careers opportunities that are to be found as professional landscapers and gardeners, and move away from the principle that horticulture is for the least bright students.
I hear so many landscapers and gardens maintenance company owners complaining about the lack of suitable labour. The list of complaints is long and includes tardiness, poor personal skills and hygiene, inability to grasp the simplest of instructions, refusal to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, swearing and lack of awareness of working in other people’s property — essentially, failure to understand the work ethic required to become employable.
Advertising for labour is often a complete waste of time. Job centres, online sites, Facebook, Twitter, postcards in village shops — ever more inventive methods of trying to attract suitable candidates attract only those who apply to allow them to continue claiming benefits. More often than not they do not even bother to attend interviews and, when questioned, claim all sorts of reasons for being absent.
One of the major problems faced by landscapers is the financial attraction of the building site, where labourers can make £100-£120 per day simply for turning up on time and carrying out simple tasks such as moving materials around the sites, without the need to use any mental strain at all. Why bother having to think when we can get paid for doing as we are told? With no thought of the future, fit young people can drift through life making enough money to suit their needs without the pressures of learning a trade.
May I suggest another route to locating, attracting and employing suitable workers of all ages? There are many others who would make excellent landscapers, nurserymen and maintenance gardeners — those who may be working in other trades that seemingly have nothing in common with gardening. I will give a couple of examples:
A chef in his late 20s became fed up with working under pressure in a busy restaurant kitchen and was desperate to find a new career. He was highly qualified as a chef but had no other ostensible merits. He applied for a job with a reputable landscape company, more in hope than expectation. The owner recognised that the chap had skills and qualifications that could be put to good use in his landscape works.
He was used to working under pressure, especially time-related projects. He was able to make assessments of quality and quantity of materials and measurements. Quality control was second nature to his work as a chef. He was punctual, hard working, clean and tidy. After only a few months of training, he was promoted to chargehand and now runs award-winning projects. As a chef, he was far removed from the muddy world of landscaping, but he had so many other attributes that could be utilised in the discipline.
Another case involves an estate owner who required someone to act as a sole gardener, with many other responsibilities besides. The garden was not large enough to warrant a head gardener yet complicated enough to need someone who had both experience of basic horticulture as well as estate management on a small scale.
Despite months of advertising, interviewing and trial working periods, the owners were in despair, until they met a 20-something person who had trained as a gamekeeper. He had been working for a local shoot for 10 years and was about to be made redundant due to a merger. All he had ever done was "keeper-ing". His only qualifications were animal husbandry and a firearms certificate.
But he possessed a deep love of nature and an understanding of the natural world including many plant species as well as trees, herbs and wild flowers. He had worked on various soil types and had an understanding of the processes involved in growing plants.
Above all, he had a long and proven track record of reliability. Anyone working with livestock must, of necessity, be trustworthy and competent, cautious and thorough — checking stock fencing, gate closures against predators and stock control including foodstuff and medicines.
So many of the attributes that we urgently need in horticultural labour may be found with a little imagination, instead of trying to educate schools careers officers.
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