Business, Production and Food - Growing prospects

Commercial horticulture businesses from nurseries to garden centres are crying out for skilled staff, reports Jez Abbott.

Garden centres: retail experience and good people skills are crucial for staff in helping customers or garden designers choose the best plants - image: HW
Garden centres: retail experience and good people skills are crucial for staff in helping customers or garden designers choose the best plants - image: HW

Pick a plant - any plant, fruit or vegetable, flower or shrub. Put them all together and you have an industry that is worth around £6bn a year and employs thousands of people.

Could one of them be you? The size and scale of horticultural production and selling is enormous. If you like the idea of growing fruit and vegetables in fields, welcome to a sector that employs well over 50,000 like-minded people. If the art of buying and selling appeals, how about the 2,500 garden centres that supply plants for the nation's 20 million gardens.

What's on offer?

Many people find growing plants in their own garden hugely satisfying and are keen to carry that over into their working life. If that sounds like you, then joining one of the many farms or nurseries that grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and shrubs might appeal. Outfits could range from a small specialist nursery up to an automated glasshouse covering several hectares.

Whatever your preference, right now every sector of horticulture needs young and bright people who are good communicators and who can turn their gadget-wielding skills to the latest electronic point-of-sale system in a garden centre, a climate-control computer in a production greenhouse, or a seed supplier's e-commerce system.

Horticulture is in many ways a hi-tech career and science and research are crucial to growing. But even career starters or changers are likely to spend time at college learning about growing, machinery, pests and soil science, in some cases up to postgraduate level.

David Winn, industry partnership manager for Lantra, a skills council dedicated to land-based jobs, says: "Horticultural businesses such as nurseries and farms are calling out for skilled people and are keen to invest in training the staff they take on. They may be making cutbacks to fight the recession but they realise they must invest in the future and a skilled team."

But people who choose growing for a living must also enjoy working with their hands and think nothing of getting them dirty in fields and orchards or under glass and polythene. They will also welcome the prospect of using a range of equipment, from tractors and forklift trucks to potting machines and irrigation systems.

Garden centres vary from small, family businesses to what are effectively self-contained shopping arcades with as much space given to gifts, kitchenware and cafes as to plants. This throws up fantastic scope for newcomers in what is one of the most dynamic and robust areas of retailing.

Where smaller garden centres may employ just a handful of people, the larger centres are like department stores with more than 100 staff, offering greater scope for specialisms from plant area supervisors to IT specialists. One of the biggest trendsetters, Dobbies, offers grand entrances, glass halls and eye-catching layouts, and has ambitious expansion plans. Another major employer is the Garden Centre Group, formerly Wyevale, with well in excess of 100 branches in the UK.

In between growers and garden centres are what are called retail nurseries - usually small enterprises which grow and sell a huge range of plants often hard to find elsewhere.

What are employers looking for?

On-the-job training is widespread across the industry. But employers are still keen for new staff to have horticultural hobbies or qualifications and retail experience. So if you tend a flowerbed at home or have a Saturday job in a shop, you're likely to impress a potential employer.

Winn says: "Some employers want minimum qualifications such as four GCSEs, but a key attribute is a good attitude. Employers prefer people who have done voluntary work and not just sat on their hands. A-level students may choose apprenticeships over university because of student fees and this fits the government agenda for more hands-on training."

But you may need more than a grounding in horticulture from working on an allotment, belonging to a park friends' group or doing a weekend job, he says. School or college leavers need good people skills such as a confident telephone manner. Handling customers, after all, is crucial not only to selling in a garden centre, but also to supplying farm vegetables to wholesalers or helping garden designers choose the best plants in a nursery.

Winn says the 21st-century workplace is one staffed by fewer but more highly skilled people and there is strong demand across sectors not just for horticultural brains. Employers are keen to recruit business managers and those with marketing, IT and retail skills. This makes horticulture ideal territory for career changers from service industries, he argues.

According to Michelle Reid, human resources manager at Dobbies: "We recruit to fill around 120 fulland part-time job opportunities at each new store. These opportunities are supported by formal in-house training programmes, so that half of our staff will be taught specific horticultural knowledge and expertise." Dobbies has an area of its website dedicated to recruitment.

Hobbies and relevant work experience are also more likely to open doors to a college course in horticulture. These include oneand two-year certificate and diploma courses or three-year undergraduate degrees. The RHS, meanwhile, runs a one-year certificate on plant-centre management for people working in garden centres, to help them put formal classroom learning into practice.

How do I move on?

Many employers offer opportunities for their staff to balance their work commitments with day-release or block-release training in college as a way of improving skills and career development.

Some 16 employees from John Woods Nurseries, based in Suffolk, recently launched themselves on the leadership fast track by completing an NVQ level 4 management qualification. The course, with stints at a local college, is designed for emerging managers who already have a fair degree of responsibility for handling resources and hitting strategic goals.

This is one of several certificates on offer to nudge staff along their career paths. Another is the diploma in garden retail from the Horticultural Trades Association, targeted at staff looking to move up. These courses help learners hone their strategic and management skills and draw up company performance plans.

John Lord, managing director of John Woods Nurseries, maintains that career advancement and succession training is as important as basic skills learning for new staff. "Training makes organisations more effective, productive and competitive. It helps staff feel valued and gives them the skills to progress in our business," he says.

Laura Drew, horticulture adviser for field vegetables and potatoes at the NFU, agrees: "Taking up a career in growing and other areas of horticulture open huge potential, allowing people to move up the career ladder very quickly. There are big gaps in terms of skilled staff, especially technical and commercial managers.

"While starting salaries tend to be low, there are opportunities to jump quickly through the ranks to senior management. There is a big focus on career progression through training, which can be tailored to your specific needs through 'bite-sized' units of study, or modules, agreed between you, your employer and college."

Like the RHS, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is one of the world's most famous horticultural institutions and also runs courses for people of all skill levels. Foremost of these is the three-year Kew diploma, which has primed students for commercial horticulture such as nursery work, as well as jobs in amenity gardening. The course targets early to mid-career people.

Students need two years of horticulture experience, five GCSEs including English, maths and a science or two A-levels, says Emma Fox, principal of the school of horticulture. Typically youngsters who have been in a nursery or growing edibles and already have a vocational qualification such as an NVQ level 2 take up places and earn £12,333 a year.

"Students balance time in the classroom with work in the gardens, project work, assessments and plant identification tests," says Fox, whose school also runs traineeships and apprenticeships for less experienced people. "It's a heavy workload and you need motivation, drive and determination. Many of the students have gone on to hold top jobs."

How much will I be paid?

Even school leavers starting apprenticeships can expect to take home at least the national minimum wage of £170 a week. This figure applies to all 16 to 18 year olds and older people in the first year of their apprenticeship.

But while starting salaries can be modest, there are plenty of high earners in horticulture, says Jason McPhie, head of land-based studies at Otley College. Some growers of edibles make small fortunes, he says, while large garden retail chains often pay their senior staff handsomely. Skilled staff such as foremen and quality-control managers typically earn between £20,000 and £30,000, and salaries for graduate agronomists or senior retailers are £30,000 to £40,000."

But he adds: "As important as salaries are career prospects. Every one of our agriculture students has found work at the end of their courses and seven out of ten on other horticulture courses move into their first-choice job. The advice I give to students is 'there is work if you are of a quality to get it'. Horticulture is still a very good market for young people to enter."



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Level 2 work-based diploma: EeSh EeWa EeWr EmDt NwMy NwRh SeSp SwBr SwDc SwKm WaDs WmMm YkSy

Other Level 2 qualifications: EeEs EeOk EeSh EeWr EmDe EmMo IrGr NeEd NeNh NwMy NwRh ScMr ScOt ScPr SeAw SeAy SeCh SeEp SeMw SePl SeSp SwBr SwKm SwNr SwWs WaBr WmMm WmSl WmWf WmWh YkAb YkBb

RHS Level 3 Certificates: EeSh EmNt EeWr NwRh SeAy SeBk SeHd SeMw SeSp SwBc SwBr SwKm WaDs WaSg WmMm WmWh

Other Level 3 qualifications: EeEs EeOt EeSh EeWr EmBm EmDe mNt IrGr LdCm NeEd NeNh NwMy NwRh ScBa ScMr ScOt SeAw SeBk SeCh SeHd SePl SeMw SeSp SwBr SwKm SwNr SwWs WmMm WmRb WmWf WmWh YkBb YkSy

Level 4 HNC/HND: EmBm ScLs ScMr ScOt ScPr ScSa WmMm

Foundation degree: EeWr EmNt SeHd SwDc

Degree courses (BSc): EeWr IrKd IrTg NwMy ScSa SeHd SwDc

Production horticulture

Level 2 work-based diploma: EeWr NwMy SeBk SeHd SePl SwBc SwKm WaDs YkAb

Level 3 work-based diploma: EeWr EmDt NwMy NwRh SeHd SePl SwBc SwDc WaDs YkAb


Peter Simpson owns a tree nursery and plant centre in Cambridgeshire with his wife Sandra, employing 20 people. "I don't think enough people are coming into horticulture," he says.

"It may not seem the most attractive career, but there are wonderful opportunities, particularly for young people. A lot of people of my generation won't touch the internet."

For an employer such as Simpson's Nurseries, he says: "It's no good going to a Jobcentre to find staff, you have to go to a horticultural college, where you might get someone on day-release."


Linda started her own business growing and selling British native plants 25 years ago in a greenhouse in her back garden. From selling just 98 plants in her first year, her company now sells three-quarters of a million each year, from a range of more than 300 species, grown in a nursery covering 2.5ha.

"This year we're dealing with an order for more than 40,000 native bluebells, as well as supplying gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. After that, we'll be meeting orders for the London 2012 Olympic Park," she says. "In many cases we have collected the original seed ourselves and can be certain of its origin."

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