The college has just advertised the 16 new production horticulture apprenticeships that it has developed in partnership with Midland Regional Growers (MRG) — a group of 12 ornamental plant growers based in the West Midlands.
Warwickshire College employer engagement manager Helen Dickson says: "An advert went out in the local paper yesterday and we have already had half-a-dozen calls." This level of interest suggests that apprenticeships in production horticulture are highly sought after. Yet just a few months ago, the RHS launched the industry's Horticulture Matters report that painted a bleaker picture.
It stated that in 2010-11, only 1,060 of the 200,000 apprenticeships completed in the UK were in horticulture — and just 10 of those were in production horticulture. The RHS described these numbers as "worrying low" and demanded that vocational training gets more support.
The latest available figures from the Government's Data Service are less specific, revealing that 3,840 apprenticeships were completed in the farming, horticulture and animal-care sectors during 2011-12. However, evidence from growers and colleges suggests that the number of production horticulture apprenticeships being taken up this year is at least double that of 2010-11.
The tables are turning partly because of the work being carried out by the Skills Funding Agency, which is helping to drive forward the Government's ambition to increase apprenticeships. It is actively encouraging colleges to promote apprenticeships and this, in turn, is helping both the public and production horticulture businesses to acknowledge that apprenticeships, which are fully-funded by the Government for 16-18-year-olds and part-funded for 19-24-year-olds, are an ideal way of training up young, local people.
Kent-based top-fruit grower GH Dean is one such production horticulture businesses that has ventured into new territory and taken on its first apprentice. Grower Carrie Jarvis says: "We are working with Hadlow College after being sent information by them on apprenticeships. We saw the potential and decided that by offering William, 22, an apprenticeship he would then have a career path to travel down."
An increasing number of employers are, like GH Dean, acknowledging that apprenticeships provide new starters with a good foundation. As demand for apprenticeships increases, the colleges are better able to work with employers to create "bespoke" schemes that suit the requirements of all involved.
MRG's new apprenticeship scheme is the result of just such a partnership. The group's chairman Geoff Caesar has devised the two-year scheme — which will see the young apprentices gain a level 2 qualification in commercial horticulture — along with Dickson. "We have worked with a lot of MRG nurseries before so they know who we are," she points out.
The new apprentices will join their colleagues three times a year to attend Pershore College in Warwickshire for one-week training blocks. Caesar, who is also a director of Bransford Webbs, admits that the traditional structure that sees apprentices leave the nursery during busy periods to spend one day a week at college simply does not work for his type of business.
"We wanted apprentices to be able to do blocks of training out of season, rather than regular day release," he explains. "We also wanted it [the scheme] to be relevant to commercial horticulture and we could not get that in the past. The college needed enough people in commercial, ornamental horticulture to be able to offer the kind of course we need. The whole thing depends on having enough cohorts. We are only going to have that by getting together with the other growers."
He continues: "We talked to the rest of the MRG group to find out whether they were also interested in taking on apprentices. In a lot of cases they had been keen to take people on but they too could not find the right structure."
The apprentices will go into college to study "underpinning" knowledge, such as plant science, while the practical skills will be gained on the nurseries. The course, says Dickson, is a mixture of mandatory and optional units chosen on the growers' recommendation. "We sent a list of suggested units to the growers and they all agreed on the course content and how it will be delivered."
Mandatory units include health and safety, developing personal performance, working with others, clearing horticultural sites and establishing crops or plants in growing medium. Optional units include plant nomenclature, establishing propagation material, maintaining/monitoring plants outdoors, controlling pests and diseases and collecting plants for dispatch.
Dickson explains that, for health and safety reasons, each apprentice will be based at one fixed location. "But we hope that in the second year they will be paired up with another apprentice so that they can do some work experience at a different nursery. This way, the apprentice based on site will be looking after the visiting apprentice."
Other growers, such as award-winning Lovania Nurseries, are choosing the e-learning option. Lovania has for the first time taken on two apprentices this year and most of their college work is being done online to enable them to spend more time on the nursery and less time at college. Nursery manager Peter Booth says: "Once a month, the tutors come out for an afternoon to see how they are getting on with their college work."
Lovania is working with Lancashire-based Myerscough College, which has 20 production horticulture apprentices. Employer services manager Lee Price reveals that the number of production horticulture apprentices studying at Myerscough has doubled in the past year. "There has been a marked increase in the uptake of production horticulture apprentices and we are keen to hear from employers," he says.
Apprenticeships at Myerscough are gaining such momentum at such speed that, as Warwickshire launches its new scheme, Myerscough were getting ready to exhibit for the first time at the HTA National Plant Show, where they hoped to attract even more students.
Assistant principal for skills and development Peter Caney says: "An increasing amount of employers are beginning to recognise the benefits of apprentices and we are seeing positive examples being created ahead of seasonal vacancies."
Incredible Farm, part of community growing group Incredible Edible Todmorden, is a not-for-profit company that has been set up to teach small-scale commercial food-growing and marketing skills to young people. It is has also just taken on two apprentices — 17-year-old Jonathan Gardiner and 22 year-old Jed Foreward.
Site manager Beth Osman says: "It was always our aim to try and train young people to help fill the skills gap in farming and growing. Apprenticeships are a good way of doing it because they are so structured. After they have finished their diploma we will set them up with their own miniature business growing their own produce.
"The idea is to have a rolling programme. We are looking at working with Myerscough to develop a more tailored Incredible Farming apprenticeship focusing on food production in the sense that we do it — in a permaculture way."
Top of the scale
On the other end of the scale, one of the country's largest production horticulture businesses, fruit grower S&A Produce, has also taken on its first production horticulture apprentice. HR director David Suggett says: "We've had apprentices before but they were training in electrical and mechanical engineering rather than production horticulture.
"But as we cannot attract the right calibre of agronomists in the strawberry sector — it's a very specialist area — I very much wanted to work with Hadlow College to help re-establish its production horticulture training. The only way to get the talent back into the industry is to build it up again from the bottom and replace that lost generation."
"Our apprentice Reed De Rouen, 23, has been with us for nearly a year now. His apprenticeship is a tri-party scheme that was devised between us, Hadlow and Reed." Suggett explains that Reed is based on S&A's site in Kent where "he can get a very good grounding in all of the strawberry-growing techniques because it has both glasshouses and polytunnels." He adds:
"Apprenticeships are something that we are now fully committed to and we have another apprentice starting this summer."
Finding training partners
S&A Produce HR director David Suggett advises employers who are considering taking on an apprentice to, above all, "think very carefully about which training partner you are going to partner with".
He adds: "Think about what you are looking for in a training provider. For us, the flexibility that Hadlow College was able to offer us was invaluable. They are able to visit our apprentice on our Kent site and assess him while he is at work."
Production horticulture businesses with up to 1,000 employees that are looking to set up an apprenticeship scheme may be eligible to receive a £1,500 grant. For more information on these grants and on how to set up an apprenticeship, see www.apprenticeships.org.uk.
Career appeal essential to attract industry entrants
One of the biggest barriers facing the industry is the way in which horticulture is perceived. The Horticulture Matters report revealed that 90 per cent of the 200 businesses surveyed claim that horticulture still lacks career appeal — and 72 per cent of them cannot fill skilled vacancies.
Ten per cent of vacancies take more than a year to fill and many are forced to recruit from Eastern Europe. The result is a lack of managers in production horticulture.
Sector skills council Lantra claims that the key decision makers in production horticulture are around 55 years of age and approximately half of these do not have successors.
The young people who are taking on apprenticeships are often the children of people who already work in the industry or people who have come from a different sector of the horticulture trade.
However, growers are hopeful that the awareness of the industry is now on the increase.
Lovania Nursery manager Peter Booth says: "We hope that by getting the colleges involved we might give other youngsters an insight into jobs related to the industry."