Issues of educating, training and securing a future workforce were presented to Parliamentarians by industry figures including John O'Conner Grounds Maintenance managing director Matt O'Conner, Tivoli/National Contracting Forum's Phil Jones, plus NFU, BALI, RHS, college and consultant representatives.
Peers including Baroness Fookes, Lord Framlingham, Lord Kirkwood, plus Iain Liddell-Grainger MP heard the concerns and will receive a report from the All-Party group later this summer.
The session was split into submissions and questions on training and apprenticeships and Brexit and the future worksforce.
AHDB Horticulture board member and Binsted Nurseries director Martin Emmett said official careers guides gave poor perceptions of horticulture as a career. The National Careers Service guide "is fundamentally incorrect" when it lists agritech salaries at £25,000 and skilled horticulturalists at £19,000 alongside possible IT salaries of £40,000.
He said the Ornamentals Round Table and AHDB are surveying skills requirement in the sector to help give evidence about what training is required. Oxford Economics and Pye Tait Consulting are also surveying landscaping skills shortages.
Emmett said there is a shortage of management and advanced technical skills in the industry and "the opportunity presented by Degree Apprenticeships is yet to be fully realised".
O'Conner said apprenticeship starts have dropped 10% from August 2017-January 2018, probably caused by the introduction of trailblazer apprenticeships and issues associated with the apprenticeship levy.
He suggested 'core and options' to be added to trailblazer apprenticeships for skills such as machine operation, tractor driver, dry stone walling, mower driver, brush cutter, excavating and paving.
O'Conner also suggested apprenticeship levy money should be given to help students with travel and accommodation. The levy only applies to 2% of sector employers and there is "growing concern" small businesses apprenticeship funding.
NFU horticulture adviser Lee Abbey said the production horticulture sector employs 60,000 people seasonally each year, with almost all being EU nationals and half returning to their home countries after contracts finish. He said recruitment levels were slightly worse this year after there was a 13% shortfall in 2017. Returnee rates are also worsening to 29%. He demanded that the Government establish a seasonal worker scheme for recruiting non-seasonal workers.
Jones said the sector has a shortfall of 15-20% shortfall of staff available. He said pricing contracts beyond March 2019 was "extremely difficult" because his company had "no idea" on price of materials such as grit post-Brexit. To combat this, he put a caveat in the contract saying "we reserve the right" to increase prices.
RHS education head Suzanne Moss said 2014 data showed 72% of horticultural businesses can't fill vacancies and 50% of under 25s see horticulture as non-skilled work. Applications for RHS apprenticeships fell 28% this year because of new programmes being introduced.
BALI chief executive Wayne Grills said domestic landscape and grounds maintenance contractors could have doubled turnover if they had been able to recruit skilled staff. Arborists are in particularly short supply.
Adrow director Ros Burnley said apprenticeship trailblazers now had 270 horticulture/landscape operatives and 80 arborists on programmes since 2017. But she said the "transition to standards from frameworks" was a "huge culture change" and risked "quality and availability of standards". Arboriculture is 'apprenticeship only' on new T (technical) level occupational maps meaning the sector "will struggle to recruit enough workers without a college-based route".
Plumpton College principal Jeremy Kerswell said the relatively new online National Land-Based College had yet to take off and was not yet national. "The crux of the issue is that the skills pipeline for horticultural professions consists of a series of ad hoc initiatives not well coordinated at local, regional, nor national level."
He added that Plumpton has 1,000 employers working with the college and that it has won a national training contract for the amenity landscaping industry. He said he can see opportunities during quiet times of the year to have more intensive training programmes which would free student labour into the workforce and times when the industry needs it most.
In the first three terms of the 2017-18 academic year, the number of people starting an apprenticeship fell to 290,500, a 34% reduction on the 440,300 during the same nine-month period in the previous year. It is also nearly 25% down on the 384,500 apprenticeships started in the equivalent period in 2015-16.