A new trailblazers programme, which is expected to lead to better training, higher standards and a greater sense of professionalism among trainees, has been given a positive response from the horticultural industries. After a consultation period that ended on 26 May, industry groups broadly accepted the recommendations, which will change the method by which apprenticeships are delivered.
Bartlett Trees general manager Ian Barrow is chairman of the Green Industry Apprentice Group, which handles horticulture, forestry, parks management and arboriculture. "We've had a very good take up," he says. "We've got a lot a interesting proposals and the industry seems very happy with what's on offer."
According to Lantra, the sector skills council for the land-based industries, there has been a steady flow of consultation responses. By 21 May - the last date for which Lantra had figures - 104 replies had been received from arborists, 62 from firms involved in horticulture and 47 from forestry.
According to Neil Huck, national group training manager for grounds maintenance company Ground Control and technical director of BALI, around 25 more responses were received in the last few days of the consultation, although these have yet to be processed.
The proposals were outlined in a series of consultation documents that were issued at the start of May. The new scheme is intended to change the way in which apprenticeships are delivered. Under the old system, apprenticeship schemes were designed by academics.
Too often they did not include basic chainsaw and pesticide courses, which are absolutely essential for anyone working in the industry. Barrow explains: "Employers could take it or leave it. Increasingly they were leaving it."
To improve training, the Department for Business Innovation & Skills insisted that any new schemes should be set by employers who would be able to use training bodies or do the training in-house. The apprenticeships would be rigorously assessed and trainees would be given a specific grade rather than just a pass or fail.
The consultation documents, devised by a series of industry groups, known as trailblazers, attempted to flesh out some of the detail about how this would be delivered. They all made clear that, as part of the apprenticeships, trainees would do skills training to get their "ticket". So, for example, they would all do the equivalent of PA1 or PA6 so that they would then have the recognised skills needed to handle pesticides.
The horticultural standards, for example, insist that trainees should have a basic knowledge of botany - how plants grow and respire - as well as basic plant identification skills. They should be able to use tools (manual and powered), know the basics of hard landscaping and be able to trim and cut just about any plant. The course will last for a year. A horticultural supervisor should be able to oversee work, give instructions and have tickets for most horticultural machinery. This part of the course should last for 18 months and lead to a level three NVQ equivalent.
Huck explains: "We wanted a scheme which that give trainees a genuine understanding of what they were doing. We insisted upon plant identification. I think a supervisor should be able to look at a planting plan and pick up the right plants and put them in the right place. They will also need to identify invasive species such as Japanese knotweed. But in addition they should have the certificates that they need to use the right equipment."
In arboriculture, workers are expected to do a two-year apprenticeship. This will include knowledge of tree growth and the benefits of trees, as well a reasonable awareness of the legal and safety issues surrounding tree care.
There are two important differences between the old and new apprenticeships. The new scheme is intended to give trainees a very clear awareness of the work ethic. "We often find that trainees have a very poor work ethic," says Huck. "You might find that they take days off work and don't realise that we are relying on them."
The other factor is the importance of "tickets" - certificates of competence in the use of machinery. The arboricultural apprentice will be expected to have qualifications for using mobile elevating work platforms, chainsaws and chippers as well as doing all relevant courses in health and safety. The arboricultural standard proposes that trainees should do a total of 13 awards in these subjects.
Barrow says: "At present you get some people who have finished apprenticeships but still don't have a ticket to work with chainsaws. At the end of the apprenticeship we would expect youngsters to be able to go out and work in the industry without any further training."
In future, the training schemes could be extended. John Mckenna, regional manager at green services specialist Glendale, would like future training to include tree identification, knowledge of how to deal with tree preservation orders and the ability to use computerised systems to map and assess trees.
By 18 June, the various groups involved in the trailblazers scheme were due to have met up to start going through the responses. Because the responses were broadly favourable, the groups do not envisage having to make any major changes.
However, there are some serious decisions to be made. Lantra product development manager Stuart Phillips explains: "We have to decide if we need a central qualification along the lines of a BTEC or NVQ." He suggests that a simple piece of paper saying that someone has successfully completed an apprenticeship might not be sufficient to instil confidence in prospective employers and the public. "This is something we will have to look at," he adds.
They also have to create a framework under which the courses can be delivered. Should the training be done in-house, by colleges or online? Should there be some kind of book, in which the trainees give details of the various skills they have obtained and can tick off their achievements.
They also have to ask what courses are required. Obviously, they will need courses in the various skills, but will they need a course of management or work practice? And how should these skills be assessed? And how much will the courses cost?
All of these questions remain to be answered. The trailblazers expect to thrash out the exact detail within the next couple of months. According to Huck, they will then invite training providers and awarding bodies to discuss the outlined plans.
This should be well advanced by September 2015. "We'll then have to put meat on the standards," he says. "By the start of 2016 we expect to have a pretty good idea of how things will work."
By September next year the first apprentices will be starting their training under the new system. The trailblazers themselves believe that this could be the start of a new era. "We'll be doing what the industry wants," says Huck.