Saturday, 17 October 2015

Saving Horticulture

As certainly as spring follows winter, the question of how to recruit more (preferably young) people into horticulture is certain to appear in horticultural discussions. Horticulture is widely believed to be facing a 'people crisis', and there seems to be no clear idea about what we should do about it. No wonder then that some choose to ignore the issue until it goes away....

When you see fresh-faced horticulture students leaving college to make their way in the industry it's hard to imagine there could be a problem; yes, there aren't as many courses on offer as there used to be, and are there any solely horticultural colleges left in the UK? Nonetheless there are people leaving school, or changing professions, and heading into horticulture. So what's the problem? It would seem that people are retiring as quickly as new recruits are being trained... but is that entirely true, and is it the whole story?

I think it's actually more accurate to say that horticulture is facing a skills shortage more than strictly speaking a shortage of people. You don't have to go far to find businesses finding it hard to recruit people with the necessary skills to do a job; yes, there are plenty of people around with general horticultural qualifications, but there are also enough jobs around needing people with particular expertise. Skills are learned by doing, and so it stands that someone fresh out of horticultural college won't have as many skills as someone who has been working in horticulture for years. The obvious thing is to offer training 'on the job', but with so many skilled practitioners leaving the industry there simply isn't the time to train the next generation. This is where we have a problem.

See the subtle change there? In the space of a paragraph I've gone from referring to people retiring to 'leaving the industry'.

As much as we need to recruit new people into the industry, we also need to retain skilled horticultural experts. There is a subtle shift as skilled horts get tempted away by better conditions/pay in other industries, or get pushed by the somewhat troubled state of the industry, and this expertise is not being replaced. Decades worth of knowledge and expertise can be lost with each person leaving horticulture; what do we do?

To coax skilled people to stay in this industry horticulture has to clean up its act. We need to act on some poisonous cultures that exist in some (many?) nurseries, garden centres, gardens and other horticultural businesses. We need to stamp out sexism; in horticulture there is gender equality in that both men and women can freely encounter sexism. Sexism is making men do all the 'grunt work' because women automatically deserve the nicer jobs (whatever these may be), or telling a woman that she can't use machinery because that's 'man's work'. Sexism is paying competent women less than incompetent men. Sexism is implying that either men or women are naturally more competent at horticulture than their gender opposites; it's not true, and it's a culture that must be stamped out in the places where it's allowed to be the norm. Sadly also homophobia can be engrained in a company's workforce; other industries have cleaned up their act significantly, and horticulture needs to follow suit.

Conditions also need to be addressed. There is a degree of 'rough and tumble' in horticulture, but there are businesses that go too far by exposing staff to pesticides (I once worked for a company where teams of staff worked in the greenhouses while a pesticide team in full PPE sprayed the plants they were working on!), not providing Personal Protective Equipment or otherwise taking measures to protect safety and well-being, or working staff into the ground (which usually leaves businesses with high attrition rates as those that can leave do!). Yes, we all get cold in winter, and we get really hot in summer, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Pay is a perennial favourite for those looking for reasons why people leave or don't join the industry. It is possible to earn enough money to live in this industry (I live alone and get by). If you're single and live alone you are unlikely to be able to afford expensive holidays and luxury items, but if they aren't important to you then you can get by comfortably. If there's someone else to share the bills then that's brilliant, but even then don't expect to be booking a fortnight's cruise on a horticultural wage. Through 15 years in horticultural retail I was aware that administration staff were often on better wages than the horticultural staff (but then the horticultural staff often earn more than casual staff); people are paid in line with the expectations of their industry, but horticulture is usually fairly low. The temptation to jump into another, better paid, industry does occur from time to time in most horticultural workers!

There is also a question of image. Horticulture is its own worst enemy here! It allows itself to be seen as unskilled, the kind of work that anyone could do if they weren't contributing to society in a more important way. Amateur gardeners who join horticulture so they can earn as they pursue their hobby often get a rude awakening; horticulture is often bloody hard work! My frustration is that I think horticulture focusses too much on a 'nice' and 'relaxed' image. For anyone who wants to succeed in life, and anyone who actually relishes a challenge, the sheer 'nicety' of the image is off-putting. Where are the challenges? Where is the career progression? Can you succeed if you're competent, or will the good jobs just go to people who are 'nice'? The number of times people have said to me “oh you're a nurseryman (or more recently, gardener), that must be so relaxing/calming/spiritually uplifting”! Excuse me? EXCUSE ME?! Potting hundreds of plants as fast as you can isn't relaxing, and neither is mowing a lawn in the rain! Horticulture is challenging, and those who succeed are the ones who enjoy a mighty fine challenge. There is a therapeutic side to horticulture, as can be seen by the various projects for people with disabilities or learning difficulties, but believe me when I say that while I have found professional horticulture to be interesting, enlightening, challenging and fun, I've never found it to be therapeutic; I would say that if you're enjoying professional horticulture as therapy then you might need to get a shift on and work faster before someone notices you're not breaking a sweat!

The new generation bring their own challenges. Sad to say that my limited experience with horticultural apprentices has been at best mixed. All bright people, but lacking any personal discipline and desire to succeed. Of course there will be diamonds in the future workforce, but there does seem to be a problem with young people not wanting to work for their money, coming in with interesting ideas that they are somehow above menial tasks, and often a profound difficulty in paying attention to the extent needed in horticulture. I wish this had only been my experience, but sadly I hear the same thing time and time again from others in the trade. Too many young people in horticulture expect to be entertained constantly, and this causes friction when they find out that about 90% of horticulture is about repetition (say, weeding each pot in a batch) or recurring cycles (such as potting each year). As I say, some people in this new generation will be absolute diamonds and will go far in this industry; many of today's recruits will probably drift away from the industry in the not-too-distant future. It's sad, but I'm afraid I think it's what will happen.

So what do we do? My suggestions are outlined here:
  • Shake up the industry as it is, removing less desirable elements that may linger in some businesses.
  • Work towards making horticulture a more appealing industry; work to increase wages for skilled and committed employees, and offer career progression rather than allowing the 'next in line' culture that's been around for decades to continue.
  • Show horticulture to be what it really is, a challenging and rewarding industry that's perfect for people with a wide range of skills and interests. To succeed in horticulture isn't about being 'nice', it's about working hard to build your skills and experience, and the rewards for that are worth having.
So there we have it; in a nutshell these are, I think, some fairly key issues affecting the industry. There are others, and some may disagree with my prioritising of these issues in particular, but I am increasingly of the opinion that it is absolutely vital to keep existing skills in horticulture. Once the attrition rate of skilled labour has been addressed the industry will be in a much stronger position to recruit and then retain skilled people in the future.