Why are horticulture apprentices on the political agenda?

Image: Capel Manor College

Horticulture training has become a prominent issue after the Ornamental Roundtable 2019 Horticulture Sector Skills Survey identified the average number of apprentices in a business will only slightly increase from 1.4 to 1.5 over the next three years. 

The report states: "Reasons for this situation could be related to the barriers employers believe they face when trying to recruit and retain apprentices."

A lack of appropriate attitudes or behaviours displayed by the potential apprentices that are suitable for the workplace was identified as a key barrier, followed by a lack of practical skills and challenges in the supply of local external training. Little interest in the sector and low applicant numbers were also widely confirmed by employers.

Few employers take on apprentices but of those that do, the main barrier, in their view, is that of attitudes and behaviours. This suggests that the companies considering apprentices may have had negative experiences during an engagement with a provider for the purposes of recruitment of potential apprentices to an apprenticeship in some form or other.

Large businesses of 100-plus employees tend to have a greater average number of apprentices, and it is these businesses that have to pay the apprenticeship levy.

In 2017, the Conservatives brought in the apprenticeship levy for employers with a pay bill of more than £3m a year, payable at 0.5%. There is some evidence this money has not been well used by UK companies.

The apprenticeship levy was primarily implemented because of skills shortages in the job market. But surveys found employers did not understand the survey.

Labour's election manifesto says: “Britain’s skills crisis has grown under the Tories. The apprenticeship levy has been beset by problems, leaving employers paying into a training budget they are unable to spend. And it is not delivering for small businesses. We cannot afford to carry on like this.

“Labour will make it easier for employers to spend the levy by allowing it to be used for a wider range of accredited training, in line with guidelines set by the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education and Government’s wider priorities for the economy.

“We will launch a climate apprenticeship programme to enable employers to develop the skills needed to lead the world in clean technology. Under this programme, employers will be expected to allocate 25% of the funds in their apprenticeship levy accounts to training climate apprentices. These funds can be spent directly or ring-fenced."

The Conservative Party election manifesto includes a Right to Retrain with a £3bn (over five years) for a new National Skills Fund: "We expect this to include funding for a range courses including apprenticeships." 

Academy plans

Hillier training manager Emma Fell says many businesses have not used the levy effectively. She has plans for a Hillier Academy and is in the process of designing a training programme "fit for our business". This is amidst a training environment where there is a lack of provision for commercial horticulture. Retail, management and customer service training is also needed by Hillier.

There is one area where apprenticeships are flourishing that could provide some guidance for the rest of horticulture — parks and botanic gardens. This November, the World of Horticulture and its opportunities apprentice day at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew attracted 200 apprentices and trainees to see behind the scenes at Kew Gardens and hear about careers in the industry.

Speakers who work in a variety of roles in horticulture described their perspective of a career in the profession. Then delegates were taken behind the scenes to talk to staff working areas including plant propagation, endangered plants, garden design, tree collections, plant health and biosecurity, display glasshouses, alpine plants, caring for turf and public engagement at the Evolution Garden.

Organiser Mike Fitt, chair of the Royal Parks Guild, says the aim of the masterclass series is to enable apprentices and trainees to meet each other and together, explore topics they may not encounter day to day but are related to their chosen career in horticulture.

"It is an opportunity for them to engage with specialists in the field and learn more about the science and art of horticulture, its practical aspects and the diverse range of career opportunities that are available."

Speakers included Kew nursery supervisor Tom Pickering, Kew diploma student and career-changer, former dancer Faye Adams, Kew arborist student Georgi Ennis, Royal Parks apprentice Cecily Eltringham, Perennial York Gate head gardener Ben Preston and former Kew student Miranda Janatka, who now writes for Gardeners' World magazine.

Kew director of horticulture, learning and operations Richard Barley says a horticulture career gives a proactive way of making a difference to the future health of natural systems and happiness of people, adding: "The ability to do something can never be underestimated. You should be empowered by that."

Delegates included trainees from gardens and parks including Kew, The Royal Parks, the National Trust and the Historic & Botanic Garden Training Programme. Exhibitors included the Landscape Institute and the Professional Gardeners Guild.

Backers of the event, which is held annually, included Chelsea Physic Garden, London College of Garden Design, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, The Royal Parks, Kew Guild, London in Bloom, City of London, London Gardens Network, Landscape Show, Worshipful Company of Gardeners, Institute of Groundsmanship, Perennial and Chiswick House & Gardens.

Vital qualifications

The drive by Britain’s leading political parties during the general election campaign to encourage thousands more young people looking for worthwhile careers to gain vital qualifications through apprenticeships has been supported in a speech at Shuttleworth College, Bedfordshire, by employer In the environmental services sector, Maydencroft.

The event, organised by the Royal Forestry Society, was the second National Forestry, Arboriculture & Countryside Student Conference & Demo Day, attended by 200 delegates involved in full-time, part-time and recent study, including early career professionals and educationalists.

Tom Williams, managing director at Maydencroft, which has offices in Hitchin, Windsor and Letchworth, was speaking at the conference held to address the skills gap in the agriculture, arboriculture, landscaping and countryside sectors, and gave advice from the employers’ perspective.

It was attended by companies in the UK with the common goal of ensuring enough young people of both sexes enter the industry with the right qualifications. He warned of a lack of commitment and diversity in a male-dominated activity.

“There is often a dearth of hands-on skills and personal management experience and team working ethos too," said Williams. "To maximise chances of getting shortlisted, past work experience is a definite plus, even if not related to the post, especially if it demonstrates flexibility and upskills.

“Possible jobs are not always advertised, so do call around. CVs should be two A4 sides maximum, in a simple format, showing past employment, have a sensible email address, be tailored to the company the young person is submitting to and be laced with buzz words. Follow up a few days later with a polite phone call.

“At interview, turn up a few minutes early, display enthusiasm, energy and eagerness, be presentable, show genuine interest in the company, be pro-active and sell yourself. Take along your certificates and diplomas.

“In your first day in the job, be prompt and presentable, ask questions, show respect to all, be professional, turn off your mobile, be positive, enquire about H&S and, above all, enjoy it.”

Williams is a University of Reading graduate in landscape management. His first real job was assistant to the park manager at Kensington Gardens. Twelve years ago, he set up Maydencroft with just three people, and now employs more than 100 full-time staff including many apprentices.

The company manages 2,500ha of woodland, 350 major utility infrastructure sites, has planted in excess of half-a-million trees and provided its employees with more than 1,000 qualifications.

It creates tailored apprenticeship programmes with local colleges such as Shuttleworth and the BCA and its consultants, working in a variety of fields, which are national leaders in their various disciplines. It is responsible for restoring landscapes in some of the UK’s most famous historic houses, gardens and estates, including the grounds of Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth.

British Retail Consortium chief executive officer Helen Dickinson in response to the Conservative manifesto on skills

"We are encouraged to see the Conservatives' commitment to the training of workforces across the UK with an extra £600m per year towards up skilling of employees. The retail industry must be able to train their workforce so that employees’ skills remain relevant for the jobs of the future.

"The increase in the National Skills Funds is welcomed by the industry, but we urge them to allow greater flexibility in how retailers can spend their apprenticeship levy funds."

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