Career changers to horticulture

A wide variety of options for training and finding work are available for people entering the horticulture profession from outside the sector, writes Jack Shamash.

Fork in the road: career changers make valuable contribution to horticulture and bring great assets in age and maturity - image: © Brain light/Alamy
Fork in the road: career changers make valuable contribution to horticulture and bring great assets in age and maturity - image: © Brain light/Alamy

Horticulture training is most definitely not just for school leavers. At Capel Manor College around 60 per cent of the 1,200 students doing various land-based courses are career changers. This situation is mirrored at virtually every college in Britain. For those entering the profession after a short - or long - stint elsewhere, there is now a wide range of options for training and finding work.

Capel Manor is keenly aware of the contribution career changers can make. Deputy principal Malcolm Goodwin worked in IT until he was 30 and until 10 years ago the head of horticulture, Sarah Seerey, was a recruitment executive for Adecco. "These days career changers are the lifeblood of the profession," says college principal Steve Dowbiggin.

Parks consultant Sid Sullivan believes that career changers can make a huge contribution. "They have two great assets, age and maturity, which means they may be highly motivated and focused on their goals," he says. They may also have new skills such as experience of data analysis, marketing or the law and be adept at management and dealing with people.

There are many reasons why people change career. According to Dowbiggin, people frequently have a major rethink about their lives, often after their children leave home or a parent dies. "We had somebody last week whose grandmother had died. He inherited her house and was able to pay off the mortgage, and he started thinking about what would make him happy."

Seerey meanwhile badly wanted to get out of her old job. "I had worn myself out in my old career and at the time I was running an allotment," she recalls. "As soon as I started a horticulture course, I felt totally liberated."

Fee payers

Political factors have had a huge impact. Successive governments have increasingly encouraged students to pay for their own courses. As a result, it is often career changers who are best able to pay the college fees.

There is a large number of courses available. Sullivan recommends that career changers should consider doing the RHS general qualification as a first step. 

"Most people who are changing careers still need to work," he says. "This course can be done in your spare time and gives a good grounding in horticulture and practical experience, and it allows you to find out if horticulture is the path for you."

Land-based colleges all have horticulture courses for students who want to go further. Pershore, for example, offers RHS qualifications at levels 2 and 3. 

"Many people are drawn to the Pershore diploma in garden design at level 4," says head of horticulture Louise Badham. 

"The first year involves a lot of science and plant knowledge. Second-year students learn about hard landscaping and computer aided design," she adds. 

"They have to do one day a week of lessons. This can fit around family life or part-time work."

The Historic & Botanic Garden Training Programme (HBGTP) is another popular option. It is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Trainees get their fees paid and a small bursary. The first year training involves practical experience. The second year includes four blocks of study, each lasting six weeks. A total of 33 trainees are involved at any time. Their ages currently range from 19 to 58. "This is open to career changers," says scheme co-ordinator Fiona Dennis. "We don’t turn anyone down because of age."
Private courses

A number of private courses tailored to the needs of career changers are also now available. The London College of Garden Design offers a one-year garden design diploma and a shorter six-month course. 

The one-year course costs around £12,000 while the six-month course costs around £6,000. 

College director Andrew Fisher Tomlin points out that of the 31 students currently doing the one-year course, around two-thirds are career changers. 

"We get people from their late 20s to early 50s. The average is mid 30s. A lot of them have a background in art or fashion." 

Most of the students are hoping to carve out a serious career for themselves. "We teach construction and business skills. This is a place to come if you need to make money," adds Fisher Tomlin.

Most courses are very flexible in their requirements. Many land-based colleges offer training in English and maths to students who do not have GCSEs in these subjects. Pershore’s Badham says: "We look at students on a case-by-case basis." The most important requirement is a genuine sense of commitment. "We always put a lot of science into the first few weeks of the course. We want to show that it is not just about pretty flowers." 

Huck adds: "There are still people who think that horticulture is all sweetness and light. We have to manage expectations." Sullivan advises career changers to avoid being complacent. "A lot of career changers send in huge CVs. They assume that because they have worked in management or the private sector, everyone will be desperate to take them. Applicants have to show how their skills can be useful to the new employer." He also suggests doing volunteer work in the industry or even offering to work free for a month for a potential employer. "If you work as a volunteer for an organisation, you know the people and you learn what jobs are available." 

Once you are in the industry, there is a surprising number of opportunities for career changers. Badham points out that former Pershore students have gone into agro-tech, garden design, production horticulture or general grounds maintenance. 

Among the HBGTP trainees, around half have gone into employment and half have gone on to further study. Dowbiggin says the jobs market is rosy. "Most students work for an employer and many go on to set themselves up in business," he adds. "Employers are crying out for skilled people.

Case study: Kath Farrell

Kath Farrell works in the historic gardens at Myddleton House in north London

"I worked in publishing for many years. In 2003 I did the RHS general course at Capel Manor. In 2007 I took a career break to have twins. I started volunteering in 2010 at a local children’s centre, went on to running training sessions and in 2013 went back to Capel to do a City & Guilds level 3 diploma. In 2015 I got funding from the Historic & Botanic Garden Training Programme and am now halfway through a placement.

"In my experience, you have to say yes to everything. You don’t know where that experience will take you or who you’ll meet along the way. Go to open evenings and talk to as many people as possible. Researching courses online doesn’t give you the same insight. Ask people about their own training and careers — most are happy to talk. Perhaps one of them will agree to be your mentor. If you haven’t got much experience, volunteer. 

"There is funding available. I have received funding from the Professional Gardeners’ Trust, Perennial, the EA Bowles Society and the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland over the past year or so. This has helped me pay for fees and short courses.

"I am pleased with the way things have worked out. My son told a friend’s mum the other day: ‘I’m lucky. My mum’s a gardener.’ Job done."

Case study: Julie Mann

Julie Munn trained at Pershore and works as a gardener in private homes

"After I left school I worked for the NHS for eight years before becoming a mum. I was always interested in gardens and at the age of 44 I took the RHS diploma at Pershore. I did the first module and loved it."

Three years ago I started doing the Pershore diploma in garden design. The teaching staff were very welcoming and enthusiastic. I’ve become a plantaholic. I love plant identification and whenever I see a new plant I think of ways to propagate it. I loved plant science and there were great workshops on drawing and design. It’s been amazing for me.

"Before the course I did volunteering at Bletchley Park. The head gardener inspired me to be self-employed. My main client is the Bannut Garden in Worcester. It’s three acres and open to the public in spring and summer. I’ve just done a new design scheme, which we’re trying to find money for, and I take groups of visitors around the grounds. It’s a genuine career, not just a hobby. I’m now 48 and thinking of going back to Pershore to do the degree. I just wish I’d done this earlier in my life."

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