In hundreds of thousands of locations across the country there is grass to be cut, shrubs to be tended, planting to be done and trees to be looked after. All this requires a large workforce, with skilled labour and capable management. As a result there will always be a demand for sports, leisure and greenspace horticulture.
There are increasing demands on the industry. Developers and local authorities have to meet environmental standards. Commercial firms have to show that they are meeting health and safety standards - ensuring, for example, that trees are safe and not too close to power lines. So, at the higher levels of the industry, there is a need for sensible people, who can write reports and ensure that work is carried out to an agreed standard.
And at the top, good managers have an important role to play: with recession and recent government cuts, the industry is under pressure to deliver results as cheaply as possible.
What's on offer?
The grounds involved might be around hotels, in supermarket car parks, in sports areas or in local parks. The work can be split into a variety of areas, but there are a number of factors common to all of them. In most cases the work will be outdoors - lovely in summer but not so much fun in winter. It will also involve a certain amount of physical work - even senior managers will have to clamber up slopes or inspect works.
One of the more skilled areas is tree work or arboriculture. This includes pruning, felling, stump grinding to remove stumps from public places. Gristwood and Toms is one of the largest firms in the industry. Director Andy Toms explains: "We have the contract to look after the street trees in many of the London boroughs. We work in small teams, making sure that trees are properly pollarded and that they are safe."
A large arborist will employ contract managers to negotiate the contracts and ensure that the work is properly carried out. There are also lots of small firms which will "lop and top" or cut back trees in private gardens.
Parks, particularly those that are council-owned, have traditionally been major employers. Although recent cutbacks have affected some work such as displays of bedding plants, parks still need to cut grass and hedges and prune trees. Parks managers will often have to work closely with visitors and community groups to ensure that the parks are safe and pleasant places.
Increasingly, external contractors are brought in to do the actual work. Glendale, for example, maintains all the parks and cemeteries in Liverpool, as well as private golf courses, hotel grounds, private and public estates. Other firms, such as Ground Control, subcontract maintenance work to hundreds of small firms to look after areas such as supermarket car parks.
All aspects of the work will be covered in the contractors' remit. This will include meeting environmental targets, ensuring equality of opportunity for minority groups and meeting health and safety standards.
Sports grounds will also have their own staff. Pitches have to be maintained to very high standards and golf courses will have an enormous variety of surfaces, from bunkers to fairways to the greens themselves. These grounds may also have problems of watering and drainage. In some cases, groundskeepers may be expected to look after artificial pitches.
Other opportunities are offered by landscape contacting companies, which as well as maintaining existing areas, may install the hard landscaping - the walls and paths - as well as the soft landscaping - the plants - in newly designed areas.
Although the recession has hit the industry, there are growth areas. Paul Cowell, chairman of the British Association of Landscape Industries, explains: "There have been cuts in house building, although there has recently been a slight upturn. But there is a lot of work currently in ecology and landscape management."
What are employers looking for?
Employers are keen to recruit people with the right attitude and an interest in horticulture. Physical fitness is also important and is essential in tree work.
Dave Davis is head of horticulture at Twig Group, a landscape contracting firm which employs 13 people and works for a variety of domestic and commercial clients. "The most important thing is enthusiasm," he says. "We want people who are willing to try anything. If they have an interest, they will learn."
Recruiting is often done informally. 'We often recruit people through word of mouth - they may be friends of existing workers," says Davis. "If people send us good CVs, we keep them on file."
Many firms employ people on a part-time basis a couple of days a week or for seasonal work such as grass cutting in spring and summer, which can lead to more permanent work. According to Glendale regional director Terry Doyle: "We often recruit from casual staff. If someone has been working throughout the summer, it's like a six-month interview. We know then that the applicant will fit in."
Steve McKeown is area manager at Quadron, a grounds maintenance firm which specialises in work for local authorities. He says: 'We like people with a driving licence because it means they can drive a van to a site. We also like people who come from within the borough where they'll be working - that ticks a lot of boxes with the local authority."
Key skills of reading, writing and maths are basic requirements. Some firms will also favour people if they already have basic training in the use of chainsaws or brushcutters. For them, it saves a couple of days' training and shows that the applicant has a genuine interest in the work.
Many firms will recruit directly by advertising in trade papers or local job centres. They will often give applicants a "tester day" so they can see how they cope with the work.
Larger firms will use apprenticeship schemes. Glendale, for example, has 55 apprentices. The training will be given by a specialist training provider or land-based college.
Firms are relatively flexible about taking on older staff. A large number of people have moved to horticulture as a second career, often in their thirties or even forties. Having a diverse range of work experience is seen as a valuable resource.
"We will take on anybody at any age," says Davis at Twig. "But by the age of 25 or 30 we expect to see some good hands-on experience or formal training."
How do I move on?
Many senior managers in horticulture are nearing the end of their careers, and so firms are actively looking for people capable of filling senior roles in a few years' time.
Most firms are prepared to invest in staff training, and Davis says age is no barrier. "Most 16-year-olds don't know what they want, whereas at 20, they know whether they'd like to stay in the industry. We help them do evening courses or day release courses, while they pick up skills at work."
The landscape industry is now making a real investment in training, in a bid to overturn a poor reputation for staff development. Ground Control, for example, reckons that it has recently spent £100,000 on various training courses.
According to the company's senior contract manager Neil Huck: "We've put 45 guys through NVQ Level 3 training, and we've just put nine managers through NVQ Level 4 to give them a formal grounding in management."
The prospect of formal training and career advancement is often used as an incentive to staff not to change job, but the industry is also concerned to ensure that all staff have the proper training required to use equipment. Most staff will be sent on short courses to teach them how to use mowers and spray pesticides. "We have to be very careful about health and safety," says Huck.
Anyone wanting a senior job will be expected to have formal qualification such as an NVQ or diploma, and companies such as Ground Control has positions up to degree level. "We have even put landscape architects through degree courses," said Huck.
Within the smaller firms, there is of course less scope for advancement. However, with relatively low start-up costs, many employees have succeeded in forming their own companies, or using their experience to enter larger firms at a higher level.
Many such firms have a clear career structure. ISS Facility Services, for example, often takes on staff as unskilled workers, who rise after a few months to charge hands and then lead charge hands, taking responsibility for jobs. They can then become supervisors who will run a group of up to 20 staff, undertaking project work, inspection and financial management. After that, employees can become contract managers, who will manage and price contacts.
Above that come the various assistant regional directors and regional directors. "In the past, staff were just waiting to step into dead men's shoes," says ISS managing director Phil Jones. "Now, with a target of 75 per cent of jobs to be filled by internal applicants, there is genuine internal recruitment."
By contrast, groundsmen and greenkeepers are generally employed by sports clubs themselves, so form part of smaller workforces. Golf clubs will employ anything from five to 30 greenkeeping staff, with course managers still very much part of the hands-on maintenance. However, such jobs call for an increasing range of skills from managing wildlife habitats to using internet-based weather and disease forecasting systems. Here, continuing professional development is, as it were, par for the course.
While many in the turf world continue to perform physical work right through to retirement, the more physically demanding nature of tree work means that many arborists move onto white-collar jobs such as consultancy as well as management, and a growing range of advanced arboriculture qualifications caters to this.
How much will I be paid?
Don't expect to get rich. The industry has never been particularly well paid, particularly at lower grades, but there are good rewards for those who rise up the ranks.
Most starters will be paid the minimum wage. However, things get better reasonably quickly. Glendale, for example, pays between £16,500 and £18,500 for a charge hand, with an extra weighting for London. Contracts managers at larger firms can receive in excess of £30,000, while managers of large estates might get anything up to £40,000.
Likewise in greenkeeping, seasonal starting positions will pay from £6 to £10 an hour, with head greenkeepers commanding from £20,000 to £40,000 at top courses. Starting salaries in groundsmanship can range from the minimum wage to around £15,000 for a senior football club. Head groundsmen at prestigious clubs can earn £40,000 or more.
Tree workers can command higher pay. A skilled worker can usually expect to make around £30,000. Toms points out that a school leavers usually start on around £15,000 a year, but that the pay, in his firm at least, is performance based and can well exceed £30,000.
WHERE TO STUDY
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CASE STUDY - PREMIER PROMOTION - CHRIS LANE, GROUNDSMAN, WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS FOOTBALL CLUB
Chris Lane has landed a job that's the next best thing to taking to the field for his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers. Having served an apprenticeship at the club, he has now landed a permanent groundskeeping job - the first apprentice to do so at the club.
Chris had written to several golf and sports clubs but it was his uncle's idea to approach the Premiership side. "I was interviewed on a match day and haven't looked back," he says. "It's a real privilege to mow the pitch before a match."
Having obtained his NVQ Level 2 in horticulture and sports turf at South Staffordshire College, he continued to Level 3 as an advanced apprentice.
He has also been a finalist in the Apprentice of the Year Awards.
CASE STUDY - COUNCIL CAREER CHANGE - KAY STEELE, PARK KEEPER, STOKE-ON-TRENT CITY COUNCIL
Having worked in various roles at the council for over two decades, Kay Steele studied for NVQ Level 3 in horticulture at South Staffordshire College for her latest position of park keeper.
"I saw the post come up when I was working in a completely different field and jumped at the chance. I love horticultural, gardens and the outdoors and because it was a passion, working and studying in this area has been a dream," she says.
Kay appreciated the hands-on nature of the course. "Developing the skills required in an actual environment rather than a classroom is so different," she says.
"Both the college and my workplace helped get the balance in allowing me to study alongside work, which was invaluable."
The managerial elements in the course may well help her to take on greater responsibilities in future, she adds.