Careers in parks, grounds care and arboriculture - From the ground up

A skills shortage in the parks, grounds care and trees sector means there are opportunities for keen applicants, Jack Shamash reports.

Casual labour: permanent staff members can be recruited from a casual workforce
Casual labour: permanent staff members can be recruited from a casual workforce

Over recent years, the green-space sector has been under increasing financial pressure from the public spending cuts. But, as most people in the industry point out, there are still excellent opportunities within the industry.

Figures produced in 2011 by Lantra, the UK's sector skills council for land-based and environmental industries, show that 177,000 people are employed in the horticulture, landscaping and sports turf sectors. Lantra predicted that the sector would need at least 11,000 new people between 2010 and 2020. Almost one-third of these will be at graduate level or above.

At the time that the figures were produced, around 12 per cent of employers were still complaining that it was hard to recruit suitable applicants for jobs.

Lantra industry manager David Winn says: "There are still opportunities. Parks are vital for the community. There is still a skills shortage. Parks are still taking on apprentices and they still need staff to replace the skilled gardeners and managers who are coming up to retirement age."

Winn points out that, in many ways, work in parks is becoming a more exciting career option. "Young people see it as a challenging career and understand that it is linked to the environment," he says. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park showed what landscaping and park creation can achieve and it helped to shift public perceptions of the industry, he adds.

Council jobs

Local authorities are still one of the largest employers in this sector and are very specific about the skills that they require. Edinburgh City Council manages its workforce internally, rather than contracting it out to external firms, and has recently recruited forestry staff to look after public trees and our woodland areas."

David Jamieson, parks and green-space manager at Edinburgh City Council, points out that, like many others, the local authority has moved to "more sustainable planting". In other words, instead of traditional and relatively expensive bedding plants, the authority is opting to have more herbaceous borders and grassed areas. But there is still a need for new staff. "We are looking for people with some kind of training, real commitment and practical experience," he adds.

The council runs an apprenticeship programme, which is based in fieldwork but also involves classroom study. It employs apprentices from the age of 16 and has recently taken on a number of career changers who have gone into park work from completely unrelated professions.

"These people are very useful because they may have ecological skills, or they can work as park rangers or on biodiversity pro-grammes," says Jamieson.

Like most large organisations, Edinburgh City Council also offers internal training. "We have a talent management programme to encourage people to rise internally," he explains.

"We also have an intensive training programme to encourage middle management. All permanent staff have to undergo personal development reviews to identify training needs and we have generic management training for everyone in the council. It's a pretty good system for developing our staff."

For more senior management, the council looks for people with appropriate qualifications - usually to degree level or equivalent.

Today, much of the work done in the parks and ground maintenance sector is undertaken by facilities companies such as ISS, which has a core of around 700 staff in its landscaping and grounds maintenance division. At the height of the growing season, the firm will employ a total of around 1,500 staff.

In addition to being major employers, facilities companies have also become an important point of entry for people wanting to join the profession. ISS has a variety of schemes for trainees and graduates.

It has developed its own scheme for landscape work - approved by Lantra - which accepts trainees up to level two. It also has a similar scheme for greenkeeping, but this currently only goes up to level one. Marketing manager Jacqueline Francis says: "This is something we are developing. We do hope to go up to level four eventually."

ISS employs 20 apprentices in its ground management team, most aged between 16 and 24. Apprentices aged between 16 and 18 get all their training costs paid by the National Apprenticeship Scheme and those aged between 19 and 24 get half their costs paid. Employers are given £1,500 per year for each apprentice under the age of 24.

A number of local authorities stipulate within their contract that a certain number of apprentices should be engaged. "Clients are understandably very keen that we should recruit locally," says Francis.

Many permanent staff are recruited from the pool of casual labour on which ISS relies. The firm will also recruit people who have undertaken basic horticultural courses at college and it offers training for more senior staff.

There is also a graduate training scheme, in which graduates get placed in different parts of the company - not just the ground-care section - and become trainee managers. It also offers continuing professional development (CPD) at all levels.

On-the-job training

John O'Conner - a major ground-care contractor with around 500 staff - also invests heavily in training. The company has just received the first land-based Investors in People award.

Operations manager Neil Cain says: "We hope to get our next generation of managers via the apprenticeship scheme. Since the 1980s, when compulsory competitive tendering began, there has been a shortage of training. To make up for this, we started taking on apprentices about three years ago. We take a minimum of five every year."

The firm, which works from the Midlands to the south coast, does most of its training with Capel Manor College. "We take on 16-25-year-olds," says Cain. "We do level two entry at the site in Enfield and we've now started doing level three at the Regent's Park site.

"Once our trainees have finished that stage, we'll be looking at doing level-four courses - about the equivalent of a foundation degree." Cain expects that the new entrants will be taking supervisory roles by the time they are 25.

John O'Conner invites youngsters who are interested in becoming apprentices to an annual event in St Albans, where they can meet current apprentices and staff. "This gives them an introduction to the industry and an understanding of what we can offer," says Cain.

According to Cain, around 20 people will apply for the event, 15 will turn up and around seven or eight will show an interest in applying. "We'll take on most of these," he says.

They will also have to pass an interview with Capel Manor before they can be formally enrolled as apprentices, but this is usually a formality. The college will give support in English and maths if this is needed. The apprentices will work on gardening, sports grounds, playgrounds, grass cutting, landscaping and streetscape work.

At the higher levels, including senior management, the firm is keen on formal CPD. "The ethos of the company is to promote internally," says Cain. "So we send staff on courses run by the Institute of Leadership & Management."

Getting in

For youngsters wanting to get into the industry, Cain offers some sound advice. "We want to see that people have an interest in gardening and that they love being outdoors. This often stems from parents or from schools or gardening clubs. This is something we're actively looking for."

Groundsmanship is an allied sector, with many of the grounds-care firms also offering grounds-keeping services. According to the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG), there are 40,000 people working on football, cricket, rugby and hockey pitches and race courses. There are also around 2,700 golf clubs, each employing five grounds staff on average.

The IoG's training and education department delivers accredited qualifications for grounds care, with courses on location or online. Apprenticeships, level 2 and 3 sports turf qualifications and a CPD programme are offered. It also offers a City & Guilds horticultural skills level 1 course.

Colleges offer a wide diversity of courses. For example, Myerscough College in Preston, Lancashire, runs full-time sports turf management and foundation degrees, and an online and blended degree for those in work.

Merrist Wood College in Surrey offers NVQs, diplomas and apprenticeships at various levels.

Spread of employment

Around 24,000 people are employed in arboriculture UK-wide, spread across two main sectors. The first is amenity arboriculture, which looks after trees in parks, streets and domestic gardens. While much of the work is carried out to ensure that trees are safe and not causing problems, they should also be attractive to look at.

The second sector, utility arboriculture, is relatively new and has been created to meet the need of rail, electricity, gas, water and telecommunications companies, to keep trees away from power lines and other infrastructure.

Most practitioners establish themselves by acquiring the basic skills and accreditation to climb and to operate chainsaws, stump grinders, trucks and chippers. The courses usually last a few days each and cost a few hundred pounds. A number of regulations, including the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986, also require users of equipment to receive adequate training.

Training essential

An increasing number of people in this sector are entering through college-run BTEC courses or foundation degrees and fewer firms are taking on totally untrained staff.

Besides the physical work, arboriculture offers opportunities for those with higher qualifications. Most local authorities will have at least one tree officer to give expert advice on dealing with street trees. And there is consultancy work, often done for insurance purposes.

A well-established programme of credit-rated CPD is a requirement of membership of key professional bodies right across the sector, covering everything from tree surveying to bat conservation.

What arboriculture and grounds-care employers look for

Andy Tipping is principal arboricultural officer for the London Borough of Barnet. "Like most arboriculture teams, we have a small group of tree officers to deal with issues such as planning, tree protection orders and organising the contracts, while the work is done by an outside contractor," he says.

"If you want to get into arboriculture, it's probably better to start working for a contractor. If you want to manage contracts you have to understand the work. You can often get in on tools - by having chainsaw certificates or by doing the short courses in pesticide application. At the higher levels we expect people with qualifications because they are effectively doing consultancy work. We usually recruit through Horticulture Week."

Neil Huck, national group training manager at Ground Control, says: "We do contracts for firms like Tesco, and budgets have to be tightly controlled. We've got a shortage of middle management who can run these projects, so we've had to 'grow our own'. We've set up courses that involve budgeting, supervisory skills and mentoring. These are run in conjunction with a local university.

"People often contact me because they are in the profession and want to know what we can offer them. They are interested in career advancement and training. If they are suitable, we're usually happy to employ them."

Fast track

Groundsman career path - Straight from school, keen students can get a position with a club and embark on weekly one-day or block-release college courses for National/Scottish Vocational Qualifications in sports turf. These start with a basic first diploma through levels 2, 3 and 4 and the higher national diploma to a foundation degree in golf and sports turf management and a national diploma in sports turf and amenity horticulture. There is also a higher national certificate in sports turf.

Arboriculture career path - Beginners will often take short courses - usually an NPTC course - in chainsaw use, tree climbing or aerial rescue. Specialist tree surgery courses are offered by a range of colleges and many amenity horticulture courses include tree surgery. Packaged courses include a three-year national diploma (BTEC), and a one-year NCH (arboriculture).

Parks career path - Apprenticeships last for three years and provide training in all aspects of working in a park. Apprenticeships offer NVQs at levels 1, 2 and 3. For those wanting to go on to further or higher education, qualifications start at BTEC first diploma and City & Guilds national certificate in horticulture, moving on to levels 2 or 3 national certificate and national diploma courses, BTEC higher national diplomas and bachelor of science courses in areas such as green- space management.

Grounds care career path - Some big firms offer apprenticeships that combine formal diplomas such as NVQs with personal-skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT. Private contractors often learn their skills in the public sector first, working in parks departments.

For more information, see www.growcareers.info/sport-green-space.


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