Shortage of staff in the landscape sector threatens upswing in work

Business is booming so much for landscapers in the wealthier regions of England that companies are now having to risk losing clients by postponing jobs.

Landscapers: greater numbers of skilled staff needed for growing volume of projects coming on stream

Landscapers say they are short of labour of all types as construction workers return to renewed opportunities in the building sector and the horticulture skills shortage continues to bite.

Hillier Landscapes is "very lucky at the moment" with six private gardens on the Channel Islands worth more than £1m each, says managing director Richard Barnard. "I could take on 10 more people today if I could find them," he adds.

"We've gone back to the old days doing £100,000-plus contracts. That's what we like. We've had a far more buoyant market over the past few months than over the last three years." Eight out of ten private clients are bankers.

The Hampshire-based company is also doing a project on an airfield in Fareham, Hampshire, landscaping at Next superstore new builds and has just completed landscaping at six academy schools and a small project at HM Prison Winchester.

Major housebuilders

It also works with some of the country's major housebuilders including Persimmon, Linden and Redgrave Homes. Contracts manager Ed Mills says: "All the big developers are now booming. When that comes through there will be housing estates. Landscape lags about 18 months behind construction.

"We've got stuff in the pipeline that I could start but it's held off - we don't have the staff. We need skilled hard and soft landscapers, horticulturists and drivers."

Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) national business manager Phil Tremayne says the "massive skills shortage" is making life very challenging for members. "What a lot of them are doing at the moment is looking for other members to sub the work out to keep the wheels working.

"A lot of members haven't had the work for several years. To suddenly switch their business on is difficult. They were dropping into the housebuilding labour pool but those people are now going back to construction, where the pay is more."

The APL is holding a networking seminar at Provender Nurseries on 22 October, where recruitment will be the key topic.

Garden designer Matt Childs has started to "manage clients' expectations" of what could be a delay of months. "The landscapers I am working with are booked up for the rest of the year, some until spring or summer next year," he says.

"I was talking to one landscaper I am working with yesterday and he said he's going to be busy right the way through winter." Childs tries to put a positive slant on the issue by telling clients it gives them more time to get the design right.

Society of Garden Designers chair Juliet Sargeant says her members have difficulty finding good contractors but she is not sure whether it is a shortage or a case of finding quality workers.

New BALI chairman Robert Field, APL chairman Mark Gregory and garden consultant Alan Sargent agree that quality is an issue. "It's a hell of a job getting hold of staff," says Field. "They either haven't got the skills or they haven't got the desire to be trained up.

"It's a long-term thing. The industry has not been structuring its skills force for future needs and we can't just turn a tap on. In the future it's all about educating schools to make horticulture and landscaping more interesting."

Sargent says the industry "has to address the massive labour shortage". He adds: "It's no good having people who know how to lay turf if they don't turn up on time or have professionality. There's a huge void in interpersonal skills that needs to be addressed. You need people to really be employable."

Threat to industry

Gregory says the recruitment of good people and graduates is "the biggest threat to our industry". He adds: "We're getting a lot of people from Bulgaria and Romania. A lot of these people will have to be trained.

"They are agricultural people and should make good horticulturists." But he points out that this is a short-term fix. "I don't think that it's the biggest issue. The problem for us is that everybody wants to be self-employed."

Gregory and others are hoping that the group of horticulture students and young earners who call themselves YoungHort can do something to finally make horticulture attractive to young people who are choosing careers.

Last week, YoungHort held its second conference at the Landscape Show in London. However, speaking mainly to horticulture students, its line-up of top industry figures was largely preaching to the converted.

What people across the industry agree on is that things have to change. Interim YoungHort director Jamie Butterworth says horticulture is rarely seen as a viable career choice in secondary schools unless a student is doing badly in exams. He wants YoungHort representatives to tour secondary schools and encourage more to take up horticulture.

Apprenticeships - Trade bodies and companies sign up to scheme

The Government is currently overhauling apprenticeships and asking companies to tell officials what they are looking for in an apprenticeship scheme.

Several trade bodies and companies have signed up. A key part of the plans is to put funding in the hands of employers, either through the pay-as-you-earn system or a new credits system, although concerns have been raised that this will be a burden on small businesses.

If Labour wins the next general election it has pledged to increase apprenticeships among school-leavers. During his Labour Party Conference speech, leader Ed Miliband said this is one of his "national goals" to increase quantity and quality.

The Liberal Democrats say they are proud of the coalition's record of creating 1.8 million apprenticeships since 2010.

But BALI chairman Robert Field says there are not enough apprenticeships being offered by landscape contractors.

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