Careers in production horticulture and garden retail - Food for thought

Job opportunities in the production horticulture and garden retail sector are as varied as the plants grown in it, says Rachel Anderson.

Butowska: apprenticeship at Lovania Nurseries in Preston is providing hands-on experience in plant production while Myerscough College teaches her the theory side of the business - image: Myerscough College
Butowska: apprenticeship at Lovania Nurseries in Preston is providing hands-on experience in plant production while Myerscough College teaches her the theory side of the business - image: Myerscough College

The commercial horticulture industry plays a vital role in our daily lives. It produces the fruits, vegetables and herbs we need to eat to stay healthy and the ornamental flowers and plants we buy to brighten up our world.

The garden retail industry, meanwhile, has become a major part of our culture. Garden centres have become more than a just a place to buy bits and pieces for our gardens. They are now a destination in their own right - somewhere we can visit for lunch, go shopping for a diverse range of products including gifts and homewares and entertain our children by taking them to enjoy the nature trails or playing on the playground equipment.

Both of these sectors, therefore, offer a variety of job prospects, and the horticulture industry is beginning to do more to get this message across to prospective employees.

Commercial horticulture

Be they a state-of-the-art glasshouse, a field with spectacular views or an underground laboratory, the working environments of the commercial horticulture sector are often a world away from the traditional office.

Jobs range from entry-level positions such as nursery workers - who water plants, for example, and assist with production lines - to advisory roles such as agronomists, who help growers to get the best out of their crops.

The sector also includes careers in plant breeding - where experts develop new varieties - and engineering jobs creating specialist, glasshouse ventilation systems and field harvesting equipment. It even encompasses roles as buyers for supermarkets or marketing companies to bring new, interesting and ethically grown varieties to our shops.

The employment opportunities the industry offers are as varied as the plants it grows, but there is still a massive skills shortage in this particular sector of horticulture. Many companies in the UK are forced to rely on workers from other parts of Europe, such as Poland.

John Jackson, director of Sevenoaks Salads in Preston, says: "It's difficult to get people into commercial horticulture. It's not seen as the sort of industry they would want to be interested in. It's a problem."

Fortunately, the industry is addressing the issue and has, over the past few years, introduced several education options to teach the skills and qualifications the sector needs.

Peter Caney is assistant principal of skills and development at Lancashire-based Myerscough College, which has been working with commercial horticulture firms in the region to offer new apprenticeship schemes. "An increasing number of employers are recognising the benefits of employing apprentices and we are seeing positive examples of apprenticeships being created ahead of seasonal vacancies," he says.

Apprenticeships

Myerscough has worked with Sevenoaks Salads to help it take on an apprentice - Toni Arbrew, 21, originally from Portugal - for the first time. Sevenoaks director John Jackson says: "This is the way to get people into the sector. It gives them the background they need from people who have learned how the business works."

Arbrew has already worked his way up from being a nursery worker to a supervisor for the company and he has recently completed a technical spray certificate as part of his apprenticeship with the firm.

Award-winning Lovania Nurseries, also in Preston, is working with Myerscough College, too, and has this year taken on two apprentices for the first time. Nursery manager Peter Booth says: "This is quite a large company and it's growing. One of our growers is retiring so we thought: 'Shall we get an apprentice?' Alex Butowska, who is 30, worked on the nursery and so she put forward an application, and my son, Danny, 21, also applied.

"We feel that we can teach them the practical side of nursery work, and the college can teach them the theory side. All of the college work is done online and once a month the tutors come out for an afternoon to see how they are getting on with their college work. They are working towards a work-based NVQ level 2 in horticulture."

He adds: "During the course, there's quite a lot of modules they can take. We have sat down together and picked what we think is most relevant to us."

Apprenticeships are also gaining popularity in the south of England. Sarah Calcutt, chairman of the National Fruit Show - which each year showcases fruit grown commercially in the UK - reveals that the fruit-growing industry in the region has worked with Kent-based Hadlow College to this year launch a three-year fruit apprenticeship for students aged over 18.

She says: "The industry itself is sponsoring the apprenticeship and, at the end of it, the apprentices will have a job on a farm, on a marketing desk or in retail. It has been devised because the fruit industry desperately needs people who have practical, day-to-day experience on a fruit farm.

"The apprentices will complete a level 3 diploma - equivalent to a foundation degree - so it's got some weight."

Apprenticeships enable school-leavers who have finished their GCSEs and mature students (aged over 18) to acquire diplomas in horticulture and get paid to work. They are an ideal route in to a farm or nursery position. Contact your local land-based college to find out which apprenticeships are available.

Higher education

Other specialist jobs in the sector, such as plant breeding, require a degree in horticulture or a related subject.

Alan Harvey is programme leader and lecturer in horticulture at Hadlow College, which also offers a bachelor of science degree in horticulture. He says: "Production horticulture - relating to food - is recording a serious shortage of graduate entrants globally, something that is especially significant when the industry is being asked to increase production to cope with a burgeoning world population."

He adds that those who have gained a foundation degree level of study can return to study for a degree.

"Career progression is important in the industry - the routes chosen vary according to the individual's circumstances and aspirations," he says.

Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent has also worked with the industry to create a new course. This academic year (2012-13) it introduced a new plant science degree that caters specifically to the commercial horticulture industry.

David Ponsonby, principal lecturer in biology and director of science degrees, says: " There were no plant science courses in the south-eastern corner (of England) - which is ironic given we are in the 'garden of England'. It's paramount from an industry perspective that it suited people wanting a career in practical horticulture or horticultural and agricultural research."

Garden retail

As its name suggests, a career in garden retail is about both the garden plants and the business of retail.

Garden Centre Association (GCA) chief executive Iain Wylie says: "To have a successful career in garden retail you have to understand what it's about. You need to be a very good retailer, first and foremost, with an almost equal specialist interest and knowledge of the horticulture sector."

There is no preferred route into the garden retail industry but people entering the sector are able to gain qualifications and progress up the career ladder - leading to top managerial roles, for example - thanks to a number of different training options.

Wylie reveals that the GCA has, for instance, just launched a new e-learning programme, GCA Grow (see page 46). The online resource is available to all GCA members and staff and contains 45 modules on topics, including horticulture, health and safety, food safety and catering.

"The initiative came about simply because there's very little in the industry that's geared specifically to garden centres and a number of GCA members had expressed concern about this," Wylie explains.

"It was discussed extensively at the executive committee and as a result of that, towards the end of 2011, it was decided to look at ways of improving knowledge within the sector - and encourage those who are in the sector to stay in it."

There are also garden retail apprenticeships available - you can find participating garden centres on the national apprenticeships website (see www.apprenticeships.org.uk).

The HTA also runs a garden retail course that enables garden centre staff to gain a level 3 diploma in retail knowledge.

Fast track

Fruit/vegetable grower career path

Some people start by working at a nursery and then develop through apprenticeships, combining on-the-job training with day-release at a college. Others go from school to study a full-time college course. At a higher level, there are degree programmes.

Garden centre staff career path On-the-job training is standard across the industry. Some employers look for a mix of horticultural qualifications and retail skills. However, other centres see a "can do" attitude and willingness to learn as the most important characteristic.

A degree in horticulture is a popular route, but NVQ courses or national certificates in horticulture are equally valid.

Ornamentals grower career path

Many larger nurseries prefer formal horticultural qualifications, particularly for their middle and senior positions. However, some take on trainees who study for a NVQ, such as level 2 in commercial and production horticulture. The two-year part-time higher national certificate in horticulture (commercial) is suitable for both managerial and technical roles.

For more information, see www.growcareers.info/business-food

Getting your hands dirty is worthwhile

What advice would you give to someone looking to grow or sell plants?

Majestic Trees managing director Steve McCurdy says: "Get to know the industry. Find out where the best nurseries are. Use Google to do this, go to shows such as Chelsea and see who is doing what. See who wins the Grower of the Year award. Then try to get some work experience at one of these places. There's no question that getting your hands dirty is worthwhile. Once you've gained some experience you can then aim to study for a horticultural qualification."

What advice would you give to someone already growing or selling plants who wants to take the next step up - to become a manager or run their own garden centre?

"Getting a degree in horticulture is worthwhile. Attaining new qualifications is always a good step. A Higher National Diploma from a good horticulture college, for example, is beneficial if you want to progress up the career ladder."


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