Sargent's solutions - self-employed vs employee status? The pros and cons

Think long and hard before deciding to switch from self-employed status to a full-time position, Alan Sargent advises.

On several occasions I have been asked to write about changing status from working as a self-employed gardener to becoming an employed gardener, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, this is not a subject that can be dealt with quite so easily as simply offering advice and then reversing the various pointers. Both have distinct advantages and different responsibilities, and I propose to write two separate articles - one for each manifestation (second to follow in HW, 26 May).

Let's consider the scenario of an individual who possesses a number of skills, certificates and experience who has spent the past, say, 10 years working as a self-employed garden contractor, operating in private gardens on an regular round. They decide that they no longer wish to continue in the business due to the stresses and vagaries of working for so many different customers with their quirky manners. Having had enough of travelling between jobs, they now wish to settle down and create or maintain one garden and watch it develop and grow.

Once that decision has been made, it is all too easy to apply for an interview with someone seeking a permanent head gardener. After all, you have the experience and meet all the criteria laid out in the advert. You hold various certificates and are IT literate. You have worked on organic vegetables and are conversant with modern machinery. The money is not so attractive but, all things considered, it could be the answer to your prayers.

I would suggest that you take your time to think long and hard about whether your wish is genuine and long-term. Have you really become so disenchanted with your professional life that you want to undergo the sea-change that will occur once you lose your independence? At present, you are able to decide what you do and where to do it. Can you really settle down and work in just the one garden, for one boss, after so many years of freedom?

If you are certain this really is your future, then take time to assess the garden and the employer for whom you are preparing your application. Find out all you can about the site and its history as a place of employment. Has there been a high turnover of staff, especially at senior level? What is the reputation of the employer? Are they difficult to work for? Are they elderly and, if so, who will take over the garden when they are no longer around?

Personal needs

Also look at your personal needs.

Do you currently own your own house? Will you have to move to take the job? Does the position come with a house and can you consider renting your current property? Does the local school have a good reputation? Is there local work available for your partner? So many factors come into the mix.

You must be certain that you are comfortable with the answers before you apply for an interview. It is not helpful if you are questioned on such important matters during the application process and you are not confident in your replies. If you can show that you are aware of the potential changes to your personal circumstances and deem them all favourable, the interviewer will be content with your positive answers.

Be careful that you are not exchanging one set of difficulties for another. If you have spent years building up your gardening round and give up your existing customers, you will not find it too easy to change your mind after a few months and try to return to your old life. Your clients will have engaged new contractors by then and you will need time and money to establish a new business.

You will find that prospective employers welcome candidates with a record of self-employment because it indicates a maturity of character that augers well for their garden and its well-being. You will have proven that you can survive year-round for a decade or more and understand the needs of the site. You are obviously talented and hold various certificates, perhaps bringing new skills to the job they had not previously considered.

Open and honest

If you have explained that you have a lifetime's desire to develop one garden, watching it grow and flourish, they will understand that sentiment because it is also their wish for their garden. Be as open and honest as you can when describing your feelings and if you think that you can offer a different dimension to the job - introducing beekeeping or a koi pond, for example - then you may well find an appreciative potential employer.

Do not be afraid to state that you wish to continue, in a private capacity and in your own time, outside interests, especially those that are job-related. For example, when I became head gardener at Goodwood several years ago, after more than 30 years self-employed, I was able to continue with my work as an RHS show gardens judge and Chelsea committee member and as a horticultural consultant in my spare time, even though I was fully employed on the estate. My employers welcomed the fact that their head gardener was known outside the estate.

The change from being self-employed to employed can be quite dramatic on a personal level. While there is relief to have lost the anxiety of chasing money and dealing with awkward customers, there is also the loss of freedom of choice to be considered. Having made that decision, I would strongly recommend that you follow a professional industry career development programme.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant and founder of the Professional Garden Consultants Association.

- See www.pgca.org.uk

EMAIL YOUR QUESTIONS TO: sargent396@btinternet.com


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