Sargent's solutions - facilitating staff training

Training for gardens staff can be arranged through colleges or by bringing in skilled artisans on-site, Alan Sargent explains.

I am a head gardener with a staff of seven full-time and three part-time but regular gardeners. Although I have a generous amount of money allocated each year for training, I confess to having difficulty in either finding suitable courses, both in terms of suiting my workforce and the needs of the estate. The majority of the team are not professional gardeners but keen and willing individuals frustrated at not learning a trade. I simply do not have time to teach them myself due to so many others pressures at work. What would you advise?

You go on to confirm that most of your team hold some certificates, such as spraying and safe use — standard essentials, yet only required as a general foundation for working in the industry.

I know from many years of experience as a head gardener and gardens contractor that these bread-and-butter essential certificates are usually required to gain employment in the first place. During two-way reviews or staff assessments, the subject of training is raised and when questioned regarding their wishes for future training and personal development the standard answer is usually "chainsaw ticket". In practical terms, while these may be desirable in a team, there are only so many times during the course of a working year that a gardens department requires the skills of a qualified, certificated tree surgeon.

Such qualifications also require the individual to be fully equipped with personal protective gear and specialist tools and machines, which, together with additional insurance premiums, may not be justified by their cost when a firm of outside contractors can handle the job at less expense.

Recognised qualification

There are a number of courses available from horticultural colleges covering a wide range of practical subjects, often organised and led by "outside specialist lecturers" as well as college staff, involving a standard format and leading to a recognised qualification. These courses are run at certain times during the year and will have advertised fees that can be budgeted for in your annual departmental financial request.

The courses are programmed and with advance planning individuals in your team may be provided with ample notice when arranging their annual leave.

However, there is a great shortfall in the types of staff training and the needs of the industry. There are many colleges and schools of garden design offering courses that will earn a certificate of merit or attendance at the end of the period. These may be run by individual designers or groups of design experts, often with their own style of design and presentation, and thus offer new designers with plenty of choice.

Landscape construction is an extremely wide field in which to provide training and there are several courses offered. Some of these elements may suit your requirements.

As a static business — perhaps the best way to look at your gardens team — with specific skills required to operate efficiently, and funds available, why not consider employing the services of an external expert to help with your training needs on-site?

As an initial exercise, write down all of the types of skills you think you need to run your garden in the best possible way. How many individual talents do you require? Not only practical hands-on skills but consider wider aspects of training. Perhaps you personally may need training in how to train others. Teachers have special skills that enable them to impart knowledge to others and it is a good idea to learn how to teach.

Even though you are extremely busy running the department, have you thought about why you are rushed off your feet? Have you considered having training yourself in time management? Working out the actual training needs of your business centre should begin with yourself and other leaders before trying to formulate staff training.

Having produced your own thoughts on the skills requirement schedule, during your staff reviews or perhaps as a general questionnaire pinned to the staff room noticeboard, add any other requests. Compare the complete list with the training requirements of the department then start to source the training outlets. Beginning with colleges, try to design a programme for the coming year.

Help and understanding

There will be many individual training requests or wishes for more help and understanding. Call them "practice and principles" of the desired skills. Examples may be establishing wild flower meadows, shrub pruning, creating rose gardens, pruning wisteria, fruit tree management — the list could go on to become almost a training manual of desirable skills.

There may be many individuals living locally who have these skills. They can be found by sharing information with other head gardeners or retired professionals. Between you, establish a network of highly skilled artisans who are willing to come into your gardens department and train staff on-site.

There is little doubt that with on-site training, where staff are comfortable and fully understand their location and the personal reasons why they are asking questions of the trainer, staff will gain much greater understanding and benefit from the exercise. They will be able to make their own suggestions and discuss experiences of working on the particular plant, or whatever the case may be, and expand their continuing personal development plan.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management.
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