What are the opportunities that can be secured by developing horticulture skills?

Image: HW
Image: HW

The skills roadmap is designed to support the development of a pipeline of talent to meet current and future workforce needs.

Horticulture supported 568,700 jobs in 2017 and had a value of £24.2bn, according to 2018's Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable-commissioned Oxford Economics report.

A survey carried out by the roundtable into skills shortages in the industry has found a lack of ethnic minorities and women working in the sector, as well as difficulties filling supervisory and skilled roles.

Roundtable education and employment subgroup chair Martin Emmett, who is also HTA ornamentals committee chair and Binsted Nurseries director, says: "We've been highlighting the idea of a skills crisis for some time. The specifics of actual numbers and areas definitely had a lack of clarity.

"This survey was huge, covering 1,050 businesses. We needed that scale to bring out these themes."

The survey shows there is a skills and recruitment crisis in all horticulture sectors — landscaping, arboriculture, retail and production.

"We've now got really detailed data and I hope that is received in good faith," says Emmett. "Many industries have not bothered to go to the level of detail we have and are making headline claims without the detail we have.

"It could look like we’re not as badly affected as others but that’s because we have gone into this in granular detail that is both general and sector-specific.

"With ornamental crop production the reality, as the director of a large business myself, is labour is a key limiting factor as it stands. At the moment there's no question the industry is being retarded from its full potential by a lack of skills and labour."

Emmett says this is at both supervisory and general worker level. "The NFU is doing a lot of work to characterise the shortage of basic general employees from labour agencies. There's a fundamental problem with basic labour supply.

"One thing this report highlights, though not to the extent I thought, is that there is evidence we're having trouble recruiting skilled and management positions. I didn’t expect anything else."

Environment services industry

For the future, to attract new people, Emmett says: "I'm a strong advocate of emphasising ourselves as an environment services industry as that’s where a lot of our growth is going to be.

"The role of horticulture in mitigating problems of urban environment/pollution — that’s what we’re really going to find ourselves focused on in the future, rather than just things that look pretty.

"Brexit is a contributory factor that impacts these things, but we need to be clear there is a skills and labour shortage across northern Europe at least."

One "really important outcome" is the finding that only 1% of workers identify as being from "other ethnic backgrounds". Emmett suggests that the results can be used as a "great opportunity" for targeting recruitment.

"I don't believe for one moment there's ever been prejudice to make this proportion of difference between the population and our employment base. It’s helpful for us to recognise there is scope to look at various groups in society and how to target our profession better at them.

"Lobbying is up in the air at the moment with the Government in purdah [ahead of the general election]. The whole frame could be reset. We just have to pause and take a breath, see what the outcome of the election is and try and identify targets in the manifestoes when they are published."

Emmett adds: "With respect to ornamental crop production, I think there are two key outcomes that would result from improved skills and labour availability. Firstly, improved skills could improve productivity both with respect to increased outputs per man-hour, through better management systems, and reduced losses. In order for integrated pest management systems to work at their best, we need increased awareness of crop health issues.
"Secondly, better availability of skilled labour would certainly boost business confidence and allow more potential for growth. At this moment, the availability of skilled staff, particularly at management level, is a limiting factor in business development. We need to address this if we are going to realise the new opportunities that are going to arise as the country increases investment in its green infrastructure."

The industry could be worth 50% more than the current £24bn if the skills gap is filled, BALI has suggested. Chief executive Wayne Grills says some landscaper members could almost double turnover, potentially meaning an industry turnover of £30bn-£35bn.

Average age

Analysis of more than 1,100 businesses’ responses unexpectedly found the average age of skilled workers (excluding seasonal workers and volunteers) is 40.1 years old — below the UK national average of 41.5.

Only 3% of the industry are supervisors, which could be seen as an impediment to growth. The number of supervisory staff is expected to increase by 8.5% over the next two years, while 10% of supervisor vacancies are reported to have remained open over a three-year period.

Some 6% of vacancies reported over the last three years remain open, concentrated in highly skilled occupations including skilled trades (14% of vacancies unfilled as of the survey date), professional/technical roles (11%) and supervisors (10%). The combined proportion of these professional groups constitutes 35%. Staff required in skilled trades, professionals and supervisors combined is set to increase by 23% over the next two years.

Skills required will include using specialist and basic machinery/equipment, soil science, landscape design, biosecurity and environmental awareness. 

There are also difficulties in accessing sector-relevant external training. In this context, the sector’s resourcefulness is demonstrated by a high rate of on-the-job training, though skills shortages and gaps persist. In addition, skills shortages and the availability of labour rank prominently among the main drivers of future change.

Businesses in the sector do not expect automation, robotics and other technologies to have a disruptive impact that could reduce workforce needs over the immediate future (three-to-five years). Overall, businesses confirm that the majority of tasks in the sector require a specialist skills set and a decidedly human touch.

Nevertheless, innovative technology — such as drones or upgrades in existing equipment like electric chainsaws — is being integrated into work processes, but not yet to the point of replacing workers. In addition, businesses predict that Brexit will affect labour force supply, particularly in seasonal work, while public opinion and understanding of the sector may also affect the availability of labour.

Other findings include an average of 1.4 apprentices per business. A large part of the sector does not fall under the scope of the Apprenticeship Levy because of businesses' annual payrolls falling below £3m, so they are not encouraged to look at the benefits such investment could bring.

The report finds: "In light of these results, despite its highly significant contribution to the UK economy, the ornamental horticulture sector is facing a watershed moment in its workforce succession planning, skills needs and related growth opportunities.

"To address these issues, the sector will need to tackle issues linked to these skills shortages and gaps, promote recruitment and acquire improved and more local access to relevant training along with a sustainable talent pipeline. These challenges may not be met by the sector alone but would benefit external support from Government and stakeholders in education, careers advice and careers promotion."


Report: Ornamental Horticulture Skills Survey

The report was commissioned on behalf of industry bodies the RHS, BALI, the HTA, the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, the AHDB, the Arboriculture Association and Landex.

In terms of ethnicity, the sector is dominated by workers of British origin (approximately 95%) and other white backgrounds (approximately 3.5%).

Workers of “any other ethnic group” represent approximately 1% of the overall workforce. 

Combined, workers of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and “any other Asian background” comprise less than 0.2% of the surveyed workforce. Mixed white and black African, black Caribbean or Asian workers constitute 0.02%.

The report states: "Other ethnicities are in even lower proportions. Thus, on the basis of 901 responses, the horticulture workforce of the sector is predominantly of British origin and other white backgrounds."

Workforce residence levels are 99% UK for arboriculture, 92% parks, 91% retail, 91% landscape and 77% ornamentals.

Looking at gender balance, men make up 60% of horticulture workers, with 80% in arboriculture, 76% in landscaping, 53% in ornamental production, 56% in parks and gardens and 46% in garden retail.

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