Now with the national employment rate at a record high, and so many sectors chasing would-be employees, a severe challenge faces the industry, prompting some novel solutions.
As one of the UK’s largest specialist arboricultural companies, Hertfordshire-based Gristwood & Toms has the resources to put into its own recruitment and training initiatives. "Recruitment is an industry-wide problem," head of sales and marketing Darren Kilby tells Horticulture Week.
"For us, the best time was during the recession. We now have unfilled vacancies. We are still winning new contracts and can keep up with those, but with more tree surgeons we could market ourselves more aggressively. We would take on 20 more tomorrow if we could. We pay good rates, which we are happy to publish, and can offer a whole career plan."
However, the risks of taking on the wrong person are particularly high for an arboriculture company, he explains. "It takes five years to train a fully-fledged tree surgeon who can work as a lead climber. The investment is much higher than for, say, grounds maintenance. Then there’s the cost of PPE [personal protective equipment] of a few thousand pounds. If it doesn’t work out, that’s a lot of money you’ve thrown away."
The company has initiated its own apprenticeship scheme, independent of the structures and funding offered by the Government. "We did have a scheme that wasn’t working for us, which is why we launched our own in-house," says Kilby. "We now have our own trainer, a former deputy head of a large land-based college. As a large firm we are in a strong position. We aren’t beholden to the Government."
Part of the "disillusion" with the conventional apprenticeship route was learners "being taught stuff they didn’t want to learn by trainers who didn’t want to teach it", he says. "They are practical people, who may have reading and writing difficulties. We take them out and expose them to every aspect of the work, to show them where they can go with it."
By contrast, he adds: "We have also been told by colleges ‘there’s no one doing our NVQ right now that we’d be happy to send to you’. They have been pushing people through without having exposed them to what’s really involved. Some of them you can set a small task that simply involves turning up for three days at 6am. If they’ll do that, you have a chance. But with many the attitude isn’t right for the kind of hard graft we do."
One potential source of workers prepared for such hard graft is the military, he suggests. "We have done two forces recruitment events now and they’ve been pretty good for us. At the last one, at Tidworth Camp in Wiltshire last month [September], we had 20 application forms filled, some from guys who already have chainsaw qualifications."
These typically are personnel due to leave the armed forces within six months to a year. "They can access funding for training — chainsaw certificates, working at height — so can come to us with those already in place," Kilby explains. "It’s an untapped pool of labour for the industry, though it’s still early days for us."
Elsewhere in the industry, Kilby adds: "BALI have been very forward-thinking and are doing an excellent job in promoting their sector through schools, colleges and Jobcentres. As an industry, we (arboriculture) need to work together more on this, to blow our own trumpet. Right now there’s no media coverage of the level of skill involved."
To address this, Gristwood & Toms also plans a recruitment open day in the spring, postponed from last month to better fit with schools’ and colleges’ schedules. "Arboriculture isn’t something careers advisers are suggesting to young people," says Kilby, yet it offers a range of specialisms including surveying and pest and disease control, and can lead to scientific research at university degree level for those so inclined. "We have to open their eyes more to this."
The company is also working with people with physical disabilities and mental health issues, he adds. "Not all of our work is up trees. Tree planting and aftercare is a growing area for us. So it’s not all doom and gloom."
COMMENT: Neil Huck, Ground Control national group training manager
"It’s not just the tightness of the labour market that we face, there is also a massive skills shortage. The weaker pound also means many overseas workers are going back home.
"Working alongside the charity HighGround, we do recruitment presentations to people who have come out of the forces, or are due to come out, from privates to colonels, some with physical or psychological injuries.It’s early days, but we have a few who have lasted with us. They have leadership skills and are used to working unsupervised and taking the initiative. They have a lot to offer and we have a lot to offer them.
"We also have a social inclusion initiative, to people who may have had substance-abuse problems, for example. We offer a six-week training course across the company, including grass cutting, strimming and hedge cutting. Some work out, some don’t. But we are having to be more inventive."