Palmstead academy: scheme includes a ‘hands-on horticulture’ group for all staff - image: Palmstead Nurseries

Horticulture careers - plugging the skills gap

Bespoke apprenticeships and internal training are helping firms to get ahead in skills-shortage horticulture, says Rachel Anderson.

Horticulture firms are tackling the skills crisis head-on by reaching out to students, creating bespoke apprenticeships and remoulding training for the remainder of their staff. The BALI-led GoLandscape campaign is linking schools and colleges directly with BALI-registered contractors, designers, affiliates and training providers to offer inspiring and educating career advice to students.

BALI vice-chair Matt O’Conner, says this advice "will be mapped to the UK Government’s curriculum for the land-based sectors and linked to the new trailblazer apprenticeship standards in horticulture for operatives and supervisors". As part of this apprenticeship reform, employers are also creating bespoke programmes that better incorporate essential horticultural skills.

Palmstead Nurseries

Kent-based Palmstead Nurseries has established a training academy after staff appraisals identified an unmet training need. Previously, its training merely centred around mandatory pesticide and machine operation. A change in its senior leadership also recognised the need for more training. More than half of staff have so far signed up to the new academy.

Training programme structure

This pilot scheme falls into two parts — a year-long leadership course for current and budding supervisors and a "hands-on horticulture" group for all employees. The leadership group meets for a whole day once a month and is supported by an external trainer who has worked with Palmstead on the course syllabus.

The hands-on horticulture group meets for a half-day once a month. Marketing manager Nick Coslett says: "To keep the group size effective we have two groups of 12 or so in morning and afternoon. This will also be for a year but there are many possible topics and it will probably continue and involve more staff learning from each other and their managers." He notes that pilot courses are set to conclude with some form of recognition and certificate, while the leadership course has modules that are recognised by a national management training body.

Impact on/benefits to business

Coslett says the new academy "boosts morale and is a valuable communication route to staff across interdepartmental boundaries", adding: "It has brought the teams together and by improving our supervisory skills we will manage staff and processes better and gain the productive benefits of effectiveness and efficiency. The feedback has been fantastic and we are already seeing benefits.

"The hands-on horticulture monthly sessions increase plant knowledge and importantly how the customer is using or wants to use our plants. Increasing understanding means staff will understand the customers’ objectives/targets more clearly and we as a company will be more on target in all that we do."

Key to a successful programme

Be relevant to the job and current, but also fun, Coslett advises.

Johnsons of Whixley: training programmes adjusted to keep the nursery thriving - image: Johnsons of Whixley

Johnsons of Whixley

Johnsons of Whixley, one of the UK’s largest and longest-established commercial nurseries, grows hardy nursery stock across six production sites in the Vale of York. The past few years have seen it re-sculpt its training programmes to ensure that its next generation of supervisors and managers will keep the nursery thriving for years to come.

Training programme structure

Johnsons has developed its Growing Stars training programme for existing staff members who may one day take on a more senior role. Group managing director Graham Richardson describes it as a "phoenix" that has arisen out of a previous Johnsons academy programme. "It identifies motivated talent and via a series of targeted workshops and broad on-the-job experience attempts to further equip the student," he explains.

The programme combines on-the-job teaching with on-site classroom lessons and is supported by off-site visits to other businesses and stakeholders. "Participants hone their skills, feel motivated and if successful would move up grade bandings and associated pay scales."

The two-year programme, open to all staff, is being delivered in conjunction with training provider Dutton Fisher and gives students the opportunity to earn a formal qualification in team leading. It comprises 60 hours of formal management training, six off-site visits plus in-house mentoring.

Johnsons also has an open management trainee programme that considers applications from industry related graduates. "The programme runs for two years, introduces them to all aspects of the business, insists on meaningful project work, includes work placement and encourages a broad understanding of our business and the hardy nursery stock industry," says Richardson. Two applicants were offered jobs in August.

Impact on/benefits to business

Richardson explains that the programme better equips team members and sends out a motivational message. "The recipients of training investment feel valued and that the company identifies them as having an increasing future in the evolving business. In an industry which isn’t blessed with new starters, it is at least a sensible attempt at retention."

Key to a successful programme

"Good training should be a thread that permeates through all activities," Richardson insists, adding: "Contrived training is often uncomfortable and overlooked." He notes that, being in an area of almost full employment, the nursery is competing for young people who have choice. "Don’t be surprised to lose new starters if you set them to work on mundane tasks, with little communication, poor conditions, average pay and colleagues they can’t identify with. They will simply go elsewhere because they can."

John O’Conner

Grounds maintenance powerhouse John O’Conner (JOC) is responsible for maintaining many of the UK’s most beautiful and prestigious green spaces. The Welwyn-based firm believes its high-quality service starts with good staff training, and it won the National Apprenticeship Award in 2016.

Training programme structure

Since 2011, JOC has created 59 apprenticeship placements, enrolling an average of eight amenity horticulture apprentices a year, and has now expanded the programme to Scotland.

Managing director Matt O’Conner says: "Out of our 59 apprentices, 90% of these were offered full-time employment with JOC. To deliver the apprenticeship programmes, we work in partnership with several colleges throughout the UK. These include Capel Manor College, Abingdon & Witney College, Askham Bryan College, Brooksby Melton College, SRUC Horticulture College and KEITS [Keeping Excellence in Training Standards]."

He continues: "We are working on a programme to extend our apprenticeship offering to include grounds maintenance supervisor level, vehicle/plant mechanic and business administration. We anticipate recruiting for these in the next 12-18 months."

JOC’s approach is to recruit from a wide range of sources — via the national apprenticeship and JOC websites, across schools and colleges, from within housing trusts with which it works and by holding open days.

O’Conner notes that JOC also attracts apprentices across many age groups and "those who want to give back to their local community". In addition, all of JOC’s managers deliver "toolbox talks" to colleagues, where there is an exchange of knowledge on all things from asbestos and manual handling to oak processionary moth awareness.

"We do not provide qualifications for these, but we record the completion of toolbox talks within an employees’ training matrix," says O’Conner. "We also operate a ‘train the trainer’ scheme."

Impact on/benefits to business

O’Conner says: "We believe that in order to provide an exceptional-quality service, it is essential for our employees to possess the skills and competencies required to fulfil their role and meet the individual requirements of each customer."

Key to a successful programme

It is key to invest in bespoke training plans for each employee, O’Conner notes. This, he says, enables the firm to retain highly skilled individuals who are motivated to develop a long career with JOC.

idverde UK: Performance Campus set up for employees at all stages of their careers - image: idverde UK

idverde UK

Coventry-based idverde UK coincided the apprenticeship reforms with the launch earlier this year of a new internal training academy named Performance Campus. While initially focusing on apprenticeships, the academy is for employees at all stages of their careers and offers apprenticeships to degree-level programmes.

Training programme structure

Marketing manager Nicola King reveals: "We’re really pleased with how the scheme is going so far. We have around 50 idverde colleagues currently undertaking the programme and we’re really excited to be delivering the new apprenticeship standard.

"Some of the apprenticeships we’re running are horticulture (level 2 and level 3), cleaning and environmental support services (level 2), engineering technician (level 3), arborist (level 2) and business administration (level 3).

"Our apprentices gain industry understanding, knowledge of health and safety as well as the key practical skills necessary for a sound foundation in their chosen role, and which they can build on as they advance through their career. All apprenticeships also offer opportunities for learners to develop English and maths."

Impact on/benefits to business

King says: "We believe that in providing corporate training and education to our colleagues, taught by idverde people in the ‘idverde way’, we will be providing a pathway that can enable successful apprentices to become successful directors —if that is the pathway they choose — so our apprentices really do have an opportunity to play their part in idverde’s future."

Key to a successful programme

Colleagues of all abilities should receive consistent, structured, face-to face, on-the-job training from people they know, says King. 

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