Ornamental crop production development limited by skills and labour shortages report finds

Martin Emmett, who was instrumental in the new Ornamentals Round Table (ORT) skills report, said horticulture needed to sell its role as an environment services industry to help drive recruitment.

HTA Ornamentals Committee chairman Martin Emmett
HTA Ornamentals Committee chairman Martin Emmett

The study confirmed that more skilled workers were needed across all horticulture sectors - landscaping, arboriculture, retail and production.

AHDB Horticulture, RHSArboricultural AssociationBALIChartered Institute of HorticultureLandex, HTA and NFU - all members of the Roundtable - contracted Pye Tait Consulting to gather data.

A shortage of skills and access to labour followed environmental issues as the other top drivers for change. These findings will now form the focus for the development of an industry skills strategy.

Emmett, ORT education and employment sub-group chairman, HTA Ornamentals Committee chairman and Binsted Nurseries director said: "We're 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."

Headline figures include evidence that 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% in the next two years, while 10% of supervisor vacancies were reported to have remained open over a three-year period.

"We've now got really detailed data and I hope that is received in good faith. 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 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 full it's potential by a lack of skills and labour."

Emmett said 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 fundmental 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."

For the future, to attract new people, Emmett said: "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 findings that only 1% of workers class themselves as “any other ethnic group” than British origin or white. Emmett sees the results can be used as a "great opportunity" for targetting 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."

Looking into 2020, Emmett said while he did not want to discriminate too much because there are so many challenges facing the industry at the moment. For him skills and recruitment and water supplies were his big areas of focus, he said.

He added: "Always in the industry the number one prority is crop protection-that won't change and that’s right because it’s an incredible challenge we’re facing being able to maintain healthy plants and biosecurity of prodcution is becoming intrinsically challenging with less crop protection material available to address that.

"We are going to need to focus a lot more seriously on carbon zero targets. We see outrselves already addressing that indirectly with peat and plastic. They are not stand alone and work towards the larger picture of becoming carbon neutral. 

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

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