Majestic Trees: incentivises team through its co-operative, stakeholder culture - image: Majestic Trees

How are employers in horticulture developing their offer to staff?

Thanks to a skills shortage in horticulture, employers are working hard to enhance their offer to new recruits - from training to profit-share schemes. Rachel Anderson reports on developments at six firms in very different branches of the industry.

Case study: Majestic Trees

Admittedly, it is easy to see why Majestic Trees won the Employer of the Year award at last year’s Horticulture Week Business Awards. The Hertfordshire-based tree nursery certainly shares Richard Branson’s philosophy of putting people first. In fact, it has perhaps always been ahead of the curve.

Marketing and business development manager Christina Jones explains: "Owners Steve and Janet [McCurdy] have always had that philosophy. They have found that if you invest in your staff you get more team cohesion, and better staff retention and loyalty. It’s very expensive to replace people. You can work more efficiently if your members of staff know what they are doing and know how each
other work."

The company has an impressive retention rate — around half of its current staff members have been with the firm for at least six years. Jones says: "I’ve been here for 16 years, for example, and a lot of my colleagues have been here for 10. I have worked with these people for such a long time that it would be a real wrench to move — you just feel really good working with them."

Majestic Trees pays comfortably above the national average for the horticulture industry. It also incentivises its team through its co-operative, stakeholder culture, which sees 25% of its profits evenly distributed between all employees. "We have a really great profit-share scheme," adds Jones. "As the company has been growing, that’s been fantastic. Some years we might not get a bonus, but then when you have a good year everyone feels ecstatic."

Majestic Trees also invests in training for its staff and, over the past four or five years, has been evolving this side of the business. Jones explains: "We are trying to condense our staff development training into 10-day blocks in January when it’s quiet. Staff members can go on one course after another. The courses are run by the management team or by external companies that might, for example, run courses on topics such as pesticide application.

"In late autumn, we ask people if they have any suggestions. They may say ‘we really want more information on pest control’, so we would run a whole training day on pests and diseases and biosecurity. It’s kind of a good start to the year — you start to work out what your goals are for the next 12 months
and then you ‘action’ them."

She adds: "In my experience, I would say don’t be afraid to invest in your staff. The staff are key to the company’s success. You don’t need loads of people, you simply need really good people who stay. You can achieve huge amounts with just a few good people."

National Trust: investing in staff training to help care for and preserve gardens

Case study: National Trust

Caring for and preserving hundreds of beautiful historic gardens is a huge task that is made possible largely thanks to the National Trust’s active investment in many different types of staff training. It has, for example, utilised the newly reformed apprenticeship for horticulture and landscape.

The scheme gained Government approval in July 2017 following two-and-a-half years of development by the industry’s trailblazer group. It has been sculpted to better fulfil
the skills requirements of the industry and, according to National Trust garden training specialist Catherine Nicoll, its benefits are already being felt.

"The new apprenticeship programme is run with an emphasis on practical, skills-based learning. This works well for the apprentices and the supervisors, who really take advantage of the range of opportunities National Trust gardens provide," she says.

"Plant identification is always an important aspect of horticultural training, and the creation of 100 plant profiles is a really useful component for helping them to learn about plants’ origins, maintenance requirements, seasonal interest and pest and disease threats. All our apprentices also keep a daily journal, which is an important discipline that we encourage them to continue throughout their career."

Nicoll says the National Trust has 12 apprentices enrolled onto the programme. Clearly, the improved course is gaining traction, with 13 new apprentices due to start this September.

Another recent scheme whose benefits are having a positive impact is the National Trust’s Heritage Gardening Programme. Launched in 2016, it offered — for the first time — training across all its gardening roles as part of a wider revamp of the organisation’s garden training programme.

Like the industry’s trailblazers, the National Trust also sought to realign its training so that it became more in tune with the needs of the industry. Nicoll reveals that the Heritage Gardening Programme’s day courses for staff have been incredibly popular. "The word is really getting out that they provide the knowledge, skills and networking opportunities that didn’t exist before we started," she points out.

"Particularly popular topics include our ‘Plants in Depth’ series. Our rhododendron day at Bodnant has been fully booked with 36 gardeners for almost a year. Even the more mundane topic of garden drainage had a good turnout at both Biddulph Grange and Redhouse. Updates on turf care and machinery go down well, as does our three-part garden history course."

Nicoll continues: "The good news is that other job families outside gardening also attend some of the courses — rangers, curators, building surveyors, visitor experience staff. They are all now able to see how much horticultural learning underpins what we do.

"We have also extended invitations to external organisations, so RHS and RHS partner gardens staff regularly attend, allowing the networking to extend even further afield."

Wyevale Nurseries: Chris King is a graduate employed by Wyevale

Case study: Wyevale Nurseries

Hereford-based Wyevale Nurseries produces more than six-million plants on some 243ha. Its main business is to supply garden centres, landscape contractors, local authorities, foresters and landowners with trees, shrubs, hedging, herbaceous and specimen plants. Given the sheer scale of these operations, there is certainly an enormous amount of opportunity — and a lot to learn — at Wyevale.

Helpfully, the company created its own management traineeship programme in 2016 for graduates who are keen to enjoy a career at this renowned nursery. The two-year, in-house programme covers all aspects of this diverse business, including nursery production, finance, IT, sales and marketing.

Programme co-ordinator and head of supply chain operations Steve Pandeli says: "We launched the programme to provide the managers and senior personnel of the future. Horticulture is not the most fashionable industry and we have to actively search for the right candidates. Upon successful completion of the programme, it is anticipated that we shall be able to match trainees to suitable roles that would benefit from their particular strengths."

Having himself started out as a management trainee in 2000, Pandeli notes that this pioneering nursery has run some form of management scheme for many years. The current programme is delivered through:

  • On-the-job training.
  • Visits to other nurseries.
  • External courses (if required).
  • Shadowing of managers/supervisors.
  • Inducting new staff

Pandeli regularly meets with the trainees to give them constructive advice and assess their performance against the course’s agreed objectives. He explains that the programme is open to graduates
of degree disciplines, preferably relating to horticulture. Management trainees are paid an annual salary of between £18,000 and £20,000 depending on their relevant skills, knowledge and experience to date.

"The programme has just been reopened as we wish to recruit two management trainees this year," he says. "But we only offer places to the right candidates." Pandeli insists that candidates must be "career-minded, ambitious and flexible in their approach to learning and the opportunities presented to them".

Chris King, a BSc horticulture graduate from Writtle College, took part in the management trainee scheme from 2016 until last year. He has now accepted the role of assistant production manager at Wyevale’s transplants division. He comments: "This programme provides a fantastic opportunity to gain an insight into all aspects of production at Wyevale Nurseries."

Palmstead: training academy courses and mini workshops held at on-site facility

Case study: Palmstead Nurseries

Palmstead held its annual soft landscaping workshop at the start of the year, with the recurring theme of "collaboration". Particularly, it noted how, by working together, the horticulture and landscaping sectors can better address issues that are often overlooked.

One such issue is the much-bemoaned skills shortage. Happily, Palmstead is tackling this head-on. Last year, the Kent-based nursery set up its new training academy after staff appraisals identified an unmet training need. Previously, its training merely centred around mandatory pesticides and machine operation. A change in its senior leadership also recognised the need for more training and the academy was born, with more than 50% of staff taking part in the new scheme.

The training has been divided into two categories — a year-long, part-time leadership course for current
and budding supervisors, and a part-time "hands-on horticulture" group for all employees.

Marketing and designer sales manager Geoff de la Cour-Baker says: "The training has helped on lots of levels. It has helped [our members of staff] to better understand how important their individual roles
are within the company. That has given them opportunities that they would not necessarily have had
and knowledge they would not necessarily have gained. It also gives them a future path within
the company — for example, after doing the hands-on training they can then go on to the leadership academy."

He continues: "It offers a path for people and shows staff that we care about them. We are interested in their personal development — they are not just ‘down there on the nursery’ doing a job for 20 years. There are opportunities there for those who want to progress and we will help them do so."

Cour-Baker reveals that the training scheme has been such a success that, having now completed its first year, Palmstead is in the process of securing continuing professional development (CPD) accreditation for the courses.

Palmstead is also casting its net across a wider area by opening its training academy to other like-minded companies and business partners. Cour-Baker says: "The need to collaborate within our industry is extremely important. So, by offering our internal training programme out to others, we are opening doors that have previously been shut to people. It also helps us to run our courses at ‘cost neutral’. We’ve had some good businesses from Kent and London that want to get involved. That’s been fantastic."

Palmstead holds its courses at its new on-site training facility. Cour-Baker notes that the facility is also home to Palmstead’s new monthly "mini workshops" that it launched this February. The events have been designed to help educate and inform on multiple aspects of the horticultural industry.

They have been such a hit that the first two events — "A horticultural jargon buster" and "From seeds to specimen: what size suits you best" — both sold out. "Our first mini-workshop [jargon buster] was so popular that we are running it again later this year," says Cour-Baker. "It was also attended by people from a wide range of professions — garden designers, landscape architects, new building developers."

He adds that Palmstead also hopes to gain CPD accreditation for some of its mini workshops. "Having now completed a year [of training] internally, if other companies like the idea of what we are doing, we would love them to come down here and see what we’ve done," says Cour-Baker. "Hopefully, there will be things they can take away that will help them in future."

Bartlett Tree Expert: course apprentices are gaining a higher level of knowledge

Case study: Bartlett Tree Experts

Given their ability to offset carbon emissions, trees have a crucial role to play mitigating climate change. Those who work with and look after the world’s trees also have a vital part to play in the future of our planet. With this thought in mind, scientific tree and shrub care company Bartlett Tree Experts has led the group that has reshaped the arboriculture sector’s new nationwide trailblazer apprenticeship standard.

Bartlett UK and Ireland general manager Richard Trippett is principal group chair for the wider horticulture sector’s new apprenticeship standards. He is also chair of the arboriculture sector’s working group. The firm’s human resources manager Sarah Maddox says: "The new arboriculture [level 2] apprenticeship standard was signed off about a year ago. It’s much more employer-led. Before it was introduced we were finding that those who had completed a level 2 qualification were just not ready to come into work."

Maddox explains that the two-year apprenticeship programme covers the theory of tree biology at a higher level than previous courses. "It’s quite scientific," she adds. "But the idea is that we are trying to build up the arboriculture industry." The apprenticeship’s science-related topics include, for example, the principles of tree and shrub growth and the colonisation of woody tissues by principal decay-causing fungi and types of rot. Other topics covered include practical tests on chainsaw maintenance and knot tying, tree identification and tree-related legislation.

Maddox says: "We’ve definitely noticed an improvement in the level of knowledge our apprentices are gaining and, because it’s a new course, the tutors are enthusiastic about it — everyone wants it to work. We’ve worked closely with Berkshire College of Agriculture, who have great lecturers and tutors. Our first cohort started in May 2018 and we are now onto our third cohort as we are enrolling people onto the course every six months."

Bartlett currently has five apprentices from a range of backgrounds, including a former gym instructor who was keen to work outside, says Maddox. The apprentices go to college for a week-long block. "They haven’t got to think about work so they can focus solely on the course. They do a week about once every six weeks."

In February this year, the arboriculture working group started looking at higher-level apprenticeships. "We are asking one another: ‘What kind of job roles would we be looking at building into the higher-level apprenticeship?’ says Maddox, adding: "It’s about succession planning and progressing people within our industry."

Riverford Organic Farmers: four main farms grow a wide range of fresh produce

Case study: Riverford Organic Farmers

Every week, Devon-based Riverford Organic Farmers delivers nearly 50,000 boxes of fresh organic food to its customers across the UK. Its four main farms grow a rainbow of organic fresh produce and it also works with a network of some 40 small-scale organic growers, based in the UK and overseas, to help complete its food box range.

The ethos of Riverford, founded in 1987 by Guy Singh-Watson, is to focus on people and the planet rather than profit. Its switch last June to an employee-ownership model was an extension of this philosophy because Singh-Watson is determined to resist external investors and safeguard the future of the company.

"We want to feel that we are contributing towards making the world a place we want to live in," he says. "I strongly feel that capitalism is destroying our planet and our children’s future, and I don’t want to be part of that." Singh-Watson has retained just 26% of the company, with the remaining 74% owned by an employee trust, in which all staff hold equal shares. Workers share a portion of Riverford’s annual profits, as they have done for many years.

Riverford celebrated its new business model with a big party on its Devon farm. The Employee Ownership Association suggests it had good reason to celebrate. The association’s website says co-owned companies "tend to be more successful, competitive, profitable and sustainable", while staff in employee-owned firms tend to be more entrepreneurial and committed to the business and its success because they are co-owners, it adds.

Singh-Watson believes there is "a lot of waste at work", largely down to a lack of staff motivation. While it is still early days, he is "definitely" seeing positive signs that the new model is resulting in higher staff productivity. "Creating a more strong and sustainable workforce was not the direct reason for our switch to the employee-ownership model but it is a fortunate side-effect," he says. "If you give people a meaningful say in their working lives there’s potential to increase productivity by a third — probably substantially more than that. If you have motivated, more encouraged staff, they are more flexible in terms of what they are willing to do [for the company]."

As part of the move to employee ownership, Singh-Watson and the Riverford board, which oversees the trust, are implementing cultural and management changes throughout the company. This includes "some quite substantial pay rises at the bottom", says Singh-Watson, adding: "With appropriate changes to management we are hoping to increase productivity, which will pay for those pay rises without net costs at the end."

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