Are training academies effective in addressing industry skill shortages?

Hort Academy trainee

In the current climate, most landscaping businesses in the UK struggle with skill shortages in one way or another. Whether that stems from a lack of training and qualifications or simply a shortage in willing workers, finding suitable talent is an ongoing battle.

City & Guilds and RHS-approved courses are offered at many colleges and universities across the country. However, these often require part-time attendance over a three-term course at the very least. For companies already working with a threadbare workforce, this is simply not an option.

For Bowles & Wyer’s head of horticulture and aftercare Jeff Stephenson, this means new recruits often join with a mixed skill set. “Some recruits have years of practical knowledge but no qualifications, some have diplomas or degrees but limited gardening know-how, while others have uncontainable enthusiasm but have been stifled by the limitations set by their prior engagements,” he says. "Very few are the complete package."

To combat this, Stephenson created the Hort Academy, an internal training programme to equip employees with the skills and knowledge required to deal with the vast majority of scenarios encountered throughout the year. 

“All my staff in the aftercare department are automatically enrolled into the Hort Academy,” he says. “There they acquire a deeper understanding of fundamental horticultural theory and practices, with skills such as applied coppicing and pollarding, implementing yearly lawn care regimes, semi-mature tree planting, installing climber support systems, recognising physiological problems and plant identification.”

Each topic is approached in a considered and professional manner, accompanied by online teaching materials and exams. The pruning module, for example, provides a breakdown of why, how and when to prune a wide variety of plants, including best practice, recognising poor practice and using the correct equipment. This is delivered in the form of an in-house workshop with worksheets for the staff to complete to assess their understanding.

“I have taken aspects from both the basic and advanced training I’ve received over the years and combined that with what we’ve found to be most effective for us at Bowles & Wyer,” Stephenson explains.

Employees are also encouraged to attend a range of in-house seminars that run throughout the quieter end of the season (December to April). These include "Creating & Caring for Wildflower Meadows", "Rose Cultivation", "Amenity Lawn Care Theory", "Understanding Irrigation Systems (from Function & Layout to Repairs)" and "Getting to Know Magnolias & Geraniums".

Tailored learning

For staff in the gardening and aftercare department, the curriculum has been designed to foster a deep knowledge of plants and how to care for them. “The Hort Academy is only in its infancy but already all my staff have begun to effectively recognise many more plants in their care and apply this within conversations with customers and myself,” says Stephenson.

One such employee, Eduardo Barbato, joined Bowles & Wyer’s gardening and aftercare team in 2018. He was among the first members of the Hort Academy and has qualifications in gardening and maintenance from both the RHS and City & Guilds. Even with 10 years’ industry experience, Barbato has benefitted from Hort Academy training, learning better pruning techniques, gaining a stronger understanding of soil and expanding his knowledge of flower compositions.

“The professional knowledge I’ve already gained being part of the Hort Academy is huge,” says Barbato. “I have a far greater understanding of tasks I have been doing for years. It has given me the opportunity to learn entirely new skills, which benefits me and our clients too.”

The next stage for the Hort Academy will see the implementation of a curriculum aimed at Bowles & Wyer’s designers and architects, with work underway to create modules relevant to hard landscaping, installation and design. If successful, the Hort Academy could eventually open to the entire industry.

 “We hope our academy will go some way to addressing the deepening skills shortage in the industry and to improving the level of expertise across the sector as a whole,” says Stephenson. “We will have our own certification scheme with a view that eventually this could become nationally recognised. Further to this we want to become a destination employer where the Hort Academy is integral in staff attraction and retention.”

Talasey Training Academy - image: Talasey Group

Talasey Training Academy

In August 2018, Talasey Group, a leading supplier of landscaping products, launched the Talasey Training Academy (TTA), a purpose-built facility in Doncaster that offers six City & Guilds-accredited courses in paving and landscaping.

Courses cover the installation of porcelain paving, clay paving, stone paving, artificial grass and resin-bound aggregate, as well as basic site selection and preparation. Each course has a series of defined aims, learning outcomes and assessment criteria.

Talasey has so far invested more than £500,000 in TTA, with modules delivered by a team of industry experts with installer backgrounds. Primarily aimed at professional landscapers and garden designers, the courses are also open to general builders, builders’ merchants and the general public.

 “It has already surpassed all our expectations from when we launched it a little over a year ago,” says Talasey group sales and marketing director Malcolm Gough. “Not only have we now trained nearly 300 people but also TTA was chosen this summer as the pre-tournament training camp for the UK landscape and gardening team entrants who came fourth out of 20 in the WorldSkills Competition in Kazan, Russia, this August.”

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