The opportunities for arboriculturists to train while they earn will soon be boosted when a new level 3 apprenticeship, equivalent to A-levels, is launched at London's Capel Manor College.
Apprenticeships have steadily re-established themselves in horticulture in recent years, but this will be the first chance for tree workers to move beyond basic craft skills within the study-while-you work format, according to the college's business development manager Linda Hope.
"We've been lobbying for this for a long time," she explains. "We have a course advisory committee that includes five employers - one wants to put three employees on it straight away, even though we are still finalising the details of the course."
Capel Manor has run the level 2 apprenticeship since September 2007, originally with just eight apprentices. It now has 23, based at two sites, and Hope says: "We have had 100 per cent success and 100 per cent retention on the programme."
The level 2 programme covers all the training required for entry-level positions, including CS30/31/38 and 39 chainsaw certification, as well as mobile elevated platform operation and general work as a grounds person.
"For employers, level 2 was there to provide basic skills such as tree climbing and chainsaw use," adds Hope. "But the level 3 programme lets them hone their skills and carry out more advanced pruning, sectional felling and tree surveys.
"It also introduces business and supervisory elements, and this is what will prove attractive to employers. There is a business management module and units that cover how to allocate work within the team, or how to ensure that resources are used efficiently. Employers would be able to use the programme to train their supervisors or team leaders, and this is the progression that has previously been absent."
She explains that this extra content has arisen through demands from within the industry. "As well as the diploma qualification, both include a first aid certificate and a key/functional skills element in maths or English. The idea is that this provides the employer with a rounded individual."
This more advanced apprenticeship need not follow directly on from the level 2 qualification, she adds. "It might suit a member of staff who had already been working for some time, rather than a new employee, or could be done some time after the level 2 programme."
However, she admits that some companies may be hesitant about sharing responsibility for training, especially in straitened times for the industry. "A gang of three who are working on a performance bonus might not want to be slowed down by an inexperienced member who needs supervision. One company said it wanted a sister firm to take on the apprentice for that reason. A large highways contractor, for example, may have to work at a certain speed to keep within its quote for the work."
Berkshire-based Beechwood Tree Care is in its first year of an apprenticeship scheme, with two trainees working towards the level 2 qualification through Capel Manor College and another two likely to start soon. "It's a great way, and a cheap one, to get the guys educated, and less of a gamble," says managing director Neil Wilson.
"Some of our work is for the military, so we need to ensure a high level of qualification and competence. They get chainsaw certificates, basic climbing and tree identification, as well as literacy skills. But even when you've finished that, you haven't really learned to be a tree surgeon. We have been pushing for something at the next level."
Beechwood sits on a liaison committee at the college that ensures qualifications are relevant to the industry's needs. "The college has got rid of the pesticide element, as we don't really do any spraying, and included climbing instead," Wilson explains.
He says the company's aim is now to keep qualified apprentices on for a year before offering them a full-time position, when they will be put through the new level 3 qualification.
"It's a criticism often made of colleges that they produce people with very little practical experience," says Wilson. "College and work are certainly very different things. You can even do a five-day course, be tested on the sixth, then you're out in the industry. But this is better for them, too, as they get to see whether the work is right for them."
He believes that the industry stands to gain more widely from apprenticeships. "There's a bit of cynicism - people say, why should I get a person qualified if he's just going to go off and work for the next guy? But if more companies are doing it, you're as likely to benefit as lose out."
But Glendale director of arboriculture Jonathan Hazell is less enthusiastic. "It's not something we're looking at at the moment," he says. "Some years ago we tried it in the North East. We took a couple of youngsters on but the college wasn't as helpful or as flexible as it might have been.
"Glendale is a traditional employer in that it seeks staff who are ready to go to work - who already have their CS (chainsaw certification) units and even Qualifications & Credit Framework level 2 and 3. Whether we should be looking for those with more skills is a moot point."
Elsewhere in the country, colleges are seeing strong interest in the apprenticeship programmes. Herefordshire College of Technology (HCT), for example, currently has 14 arboricultural and forestry apprentices.
"The apprenticeship is well-subscribed - we have more than most people," says head of forestry Charlotte Gibb. "Employment is less of an issue for our students as they are already in work when they start. There's a split of about 50:50 between those who stay with that employer or go on to work elsewhere. Quite a few have set up their own companies and in some cases ex-HCT students have taken on other students."
FIGURING OUT FUNDING
A criticism sometimes levelled at college training is that it is constrained and to a large degree guided by Government funding priorities rather than by industry need.
"As a college, funding poses a challenge," Capel Manor College's Linda Hope admits. "We can draw down 100 per cent funding from the Government for 16- to 18-year-olds and half-funding for 19- to 24-year-olds, though it's less still for larger companies, who it is thought should have bigger training budgets."
She adds: "We have a lot of youngsters who want to do trees and timber at 18, but around two-fifths are 19 and above, often having already worked in other areas. They would have to find an employer willing to make a contribution."
The way funding is allocated means those keen to participate in the level 3 arboriculture apprenticeship scheme will have to wait until the next financial year, in April 2011, to receive funding, regardless of participants' ages, she explains.
"This could be brought forward to September if employers choose to pay full fees rather than wait for funded places to become available, or if funding allocations are adjusted. The funding agency has a fixed allocation but is very active in redistributing unused funds from providers with lower recruitment or success rates to those providers who have waiting lists and good success rates."
Apprenticeships can be cost-effective for employers. "To put employees through National Proficiency Tests Council tickets, they would have to pay for training and assessment. If they compare those costs with what we deliver, they find an apprenticeship is quite competitively priced."
The minimum pay of £95 per week for apprentices presents another potential cost advantage for employers, she adds. "If they do take on someone who's already fully trained but who has not yet worked in the real world, that person will cost them more and may not be much faster - and they can mould an apprentice to the way they work as a company."
Birchwood Tree Care's Neil Wilson says funding the training is "a strange issue" from the company's point of view, adding: "It's a bit of a lottery - by law you have to take the best qualified people but you can only get full funding if they're aged 16 to 18, otherwise it can cost up to £5,000 for their training."