Why go to university when you can earn bags of money without clocking up a huge graduate debt by learning a horticultural skill?
Apprenticeships are a good way to launch yourself into horticulture, freeing you to earn while you learn and combine academic study with on-the-job training and gritty work experience.
One- to four-year schemes run by local authorities are back in vogue while garden centres, botanic gardens and grounds-upkeep firms have put faith in a new generation of apprentices.
How do they work?
Apprentices earn money from day one, unlike graduates who are paying from day one. What’s more you will find yourself alongside workmates with years of experience.
They will help you work towards nationally recognised qualifications such as a diploma in garden retail at B&Q or an NVQ in groundskeeping from your favourite football club.
School leavers aged over 16 can apply, so why not check out the National Trust and Royal Parks, Capel Manor College or Kew Gardens, all of which take on – or train – apprentices?
And don’t forget, while your former schoolmates pay uni fees, you will earn at least £2.50 an hour. Many apprentices however earn more, up to £170 a week take-home pay. A good deal.
Apprenticeships are very hot news
Right now is a fantastic time to leap into learning on the job, with a little college work thrown in doing day or block-release coursework.
As one of the few areas of education and training not hit by government cuts, apprenticeships are thriving. The coalition has pledged to create more than 75,000 new places by 2015.
MPs have also called for a new "golden age of vocational training" and talk of creating a Royal Society of Apprentices similar to the Law Society or British Medical Association.
The City & Guilds Vocational Rich List, published in August 2011, revealed the fortunes of "skillionaires" who did apprenticeships not degrees rocketed to £17.6bn, up £1bn from 2008.
And according to a government study in 2007, those with a level 2 apprenticeship (equivalent to GCSE) earn more than £73,000 over their lifetime than those with fewer qualifications.
There is even a National Apprenticeship Week, between 6 and 10 February 2012, which puts employers in touch with apprenticeship programmes.
Funding and costs
The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) covers the training of apprentices while the government funds the full cost of training youngsters aged between 16 and 18.
NAS also supports employers in recruiting and training a person up to and above the age of 25 including signposting them to providers and advising on the types of apprenticeship.
And it also manages apprenticeship vacancies – a free online recruitment tool that can be used to match apprentices to their prospective employers.
Alternatively, if you can’t find an employer in your area, give your local college a call to find out about training and funding. Some may be able be matchmaker for you and an employer.
What horticultural sectors and job titles are covered?
Forget the old tales of muddy boots and hour upon hour of hard manual graft.
Apprentices in horticulture lead exciting and varied working lives and are in high demand.
Horticulture in England alone employs almost 860,000 people with even more workers needed in the next few years to plug a skills gap across virtually all horticulture sectors.
These cover an enormous range of jobs to suit people keen on working outdoors and with plants but who are not afraid of science, technology and dealing with people.
Careers for apprentices in horticulture include fine-turf keeping, landscape design or construction and tree surgery, but you also learn general skills like IT and communications.
Amenity horticulture includes gardening for a council or private property. Landscaping meanwhile covers planning, design and maintenance of green spaces in towns and rural areas.
Jobs in the amenity sector include greenkeeper or gardener for local-authority sports pitches and parks, an apprentice in a historic house and garden or conservationist in a national park.
Production horticulture deals with large-scale growing of edible crops or ornamental plants for flower beds. Apprentices in this sector grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and trees for sale.
In this sector you could end up working in a small private nursery that grows flowers to sell to consumers and wholesalers or maybe a large fruit farm or grower of vegetables.
John Ledwidge did well in his school exams but university was not on the radar. The 16 year old wanted to be a groundsman for his favourite football club Coventry City.
He signed up as an apprentice to the midlands team after his GCSEs and within a year he was made deputy head groundsman. His rapid rise, he insists, was down to his apprenticeship.
"I was able to combine theoretical knowledge learned at college with the practical skills and knowhow gained in the workplace.
"This is invaluable as you can’t teach everything in the classroom. Also some people can understand knowledge better on the job than they might in a classroom."
John joined Premier League club Aston Villa before returning to Coventry recently as rounds manager. His training has led to membership of the Institute of Groundsmanship.
"I came from learning the ropes to being involved in management. Aston Villa employs apprentices and without them and experienced staff there wouldn’t be much of a business.
"Apprentices bring to the workplace what they are learning at college – all the latest technologies that might not have been around or taught when you yourself started.
"This can only expand your business and help it grow. Apprentices offer something invaluable to the workplace and they are our future."
• Check out what John has to say in his video:
Dale LewisDale Lewis is a high flier, but the regional manager for a massive chain of garden centres started his career 20 years ago as an apprentice.
He started working part time in a garden centre in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, aged 14, mixing compost and pushing trolleys. But when it came to A’levels at 16 he skipped school.
His apprenticeship lasted three years and by mixing week-long stints at college with his day-to-day work, he notched up a National Diploma in amenity horticulture.
Dale had to balance learning about propagating, grafting and spraying plants with flower identification tests and understanding the Latin lore of plant names.
Soon he became a plant area manager before moving to a garden centre in Swindon to take on management duties such as improving sales, handling budgets and controlling waste.
When his garden centre was taken over by Garden Centre Group, formerly Wyevale, he was made manager and tackled shop refits and sales as well as his first love, plants.
He is now manager for World’s End Garden Centre in Wendover, Buckinghamshire and a regional manager for the entire group of 119 garden centres in England and Wales.
"My biggest personal achievement was being voted manager of the year by the company, while the team was voted best plant-area sales team at a recent industry awards ceremony."
Youngster keen on breaking into garden retail need a good work ethic, commonsense and the ability to handle technology and people, he says.
Botanic Gardens Conservation International www.bgci.org – global umbrella group
Horticultural Trades Association www.the-hta.org.uk – trade group for gardening sectors
Institute of Horticulture www.horticulture.org.uk – advises on professional development
Lantra www.lantra.co.uk – Government skills council for land-based industries
Royal Horticultural Society www.rhs.org.uk – promotes horticulture to the public
Horticulture Week – www.horticultureweek.co.uk – professional magazine with career and job details
National Apprenticeship Service www.apprenticeships.org.uk – oversees work-based training
Not Going to Uni www.notgoingtouni.co.uk – careers advice for non-uni people
Pods4jobs www.pods4jobs.com – allows you to post CVs and videos
City & Guilds www.cityandguilds.com – overseas City & Guilds qualifications
Arboricultural Association www.trees.org.uk – professional group for tree surgeons
British and International Golf Greenkeepers’ Association www.bigga.org.uk – golfing group
Professional Gardeners Guild – www.pgg.org.uk – represents public and private gardens staff
English Heritage www.english-heritage.org.uk – government agency for 400 properties
Historic Houses Association www.hha.org.uk – looks after 1,500 houses and gardens
National Trust www.nationaltrust.org.uk – conservation group for landscapes and houses
Royal Parks www.royalparks.org.uk – manages several well-known parks such as Hyde Park
Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.org – a big employer of garden staff
Askham Bryan www.askham-bryan.ac.uk – campuses in Yorkshire and one in Cumbria
Capel Manor www.capel.ac.uk – several campuses across London
Kew Gardens www.kew.org – internationally renowned gardens based in west London
Merrist Wood www.merristwood.ac.uk – based in Guildford, Surrey
Pershore College www.warwickshire.ac.uk - part of Warwickshire College set in 60 acres of land
B&Q www.diy.com – DIY chain with garden centres that train staff
Dobbies - www.dobbies.com - garden centre chain that runs apprenticeships
Garden Centre Group www.thegardencentregroup.co.uk – largest garden retailer in Britain
Hillier www.hillier.co.uk – garden centre and nursery business with 14 retail stores
Klondyke www.klondyke.co.uk – family run garden centres in England, Wales and Scotland