Green skills are in alarming decline in Britain, according to the director general of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
Despite the horticulture industry contributing about £9bn to the UK economy and employing around 300,000 people, 70% of businesses in the sector say they struggle to fill vacancies and 83% put this down to the poor perception of horticulture in schools and colleges, according to the RHS.
But at the foot of the South Downs in East Sussex, one institute has found a way to combat the skills crisis by connecting young people with horticulture in new and inspiring ways. Established in 1919, Plumpton College is one of the leading centres for land-based education in the UK and offers courses in everything from floristry to animal management and outdoor adventure.
For Alex Waterfield, Plumpton’s grounds and garden manager, the college also represents the culmination of a professional journey that began before he left school. Having studied horticulture at Plumpton College before working as a garden designer and running his own garden design and landscaping business for 12 years, he saw his current role advertised while working for the National Trust, and his working life came full circle.
“I did work experience at Stanmer Park aged 15, back when it was the plant sales base for the parks and gardens department of Brighton & Hove council,” he explains. “Now I’m project managing the horticultural aspect of Plumpton College and the Stanmer Park Restoration Project.”
Stanmer Park’s historic Walled Garden is the site of a £5.1m project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which Plumpton College and Brighton & Hove city council have helped bring to life. Within the walled garden there will be a cafe, farm shop and events lawns suitable for plant fairs, farmers’ markets or open air theatre. Waterfield works closely with the college’s horticulture apprentices, who will be actively involved in planting the Walled Garden, designed by Dominic Cole.
Walled garden horticultural projects aren’t uncommon, but Stanmer Park is the only one of its kind tied to an educational establishment. For the apprentices involved, it’s a truly unusual opportunity, and the chance to work in two different environments – the Walled Garden and Plumpton College itself – is invaluable for an apprentice wondering which career path to pursue.
“The opportunity to experience this kind of visitor attraction before it opens is brilliant for anyone hoping to work in public gardens – plants which apprentices grow from seed will be produced to a level suitable for sales in the plant sales area, meaning apprentices will learn the commercial aspect of horticulture, too,” he says.
But the apprentices aren’t the only ones learning new skills; their presence on site at Plumpton has boosted the team as a whole.
“You’re always learning something and you never know everything in horticulture, so having apprentices doing up-to-the-minute training helps us all revise things or uncover things we haven’t studied,” Waterfield says. “Having a fresh set of eyes on a project lifts everyone. Apprentices can bring new ideas and ways of working that we won’t have thought of.”
Waterfield is evangelical about the benefits for the apprentices, too. “Adjusting to the world of work is a big shock to the system for some college-leavers, whereas an apprenticeship gets you used to a working day and helps you understand what future employers might expect,” he says. “And as an employer, taking on an experienced, qualified apprentice is very different to taking on someone straight out of a classroom who’ll you have to train from scratch.”
Gary Swayne is group safety, health and environment manager at APS Produce, the UK’s largest tomato grower, which produces millions of punnets of tomatoes per week from six growing sites. A beneficiary of lifelong learning himself, Swayne sees apprenticeships as “vital” to the future of the horticulture industry.
“Apprenticeships make it so much easier for operational managers to invest in people,” he says. “Despite the size of our industry, it’s not one people know about, so we’re able to use apprenticeships as a bridging qualification for people with prior learning, bringing that level of talent into the specialisms we require within commercial crop production.”
Waterfield agrees. “An apprenticeship also represents a valuable opportunity to train someone up, at little cost to the employer beyond your time, to become a vital member of your future team,” he says. “I’ve heard of apprentices being treated like labourers, but you have to give them more than that. An apprentice’s wages aren’t fantastic, so they’re essentially making a sacrifice for you. As an employer, it’s only right that you do the same and invest wholeheartedly in an apprentice.”