How can we help people to understand landscape and horticultural services better?

I watched a recent episode of The Apprentice with increasing exasperation – and almost switched off altogether.  Very wise, those of you that generally avoid reality TV might be thinking, but my reaction was nothing to do with the ‘falseness’ of a reality TV format. It was all to do with the misleading image that was portrayed of our landscaping and horticultural industries.

As the programme format dictates, two teams of young business people were set a task by Lord Sugar.  The teams were briefed to set up their own urban gardening businesses, carrying out commercial and domestic jobs across London.  On day one, both teams visited corporate clients to pitch a plan and secure a price for a large rooftop renovation.  On day two, the work was carried out and client feedback was given.  The outcomes were not good. One client was presented with a badly-painted bench and various plants randomly scattered about the space (she did not pay up).  Overall, the picture was one of shoddy work. Despite our heritage as a nation of garden lovers (and years of popular TV gardening programmes), it seems that we still have difficulty portraying the services offered and the skills deployed by those working in landscape and horticulture industries accurately and positively.

Why does this matter?  In my opinion, this recent example highlighted two key issues:

Issue 1 – how can we expect to attract people into landscape and horticulture roles if the work is so misunderstood and undervalued?  Within the context of leaving the EU and an ageing workforce, employers and managers across landscaping and horticulture are faced with an ever-more challenging ‘war for talent’ and urgent skills shortages.

Issue 2 – how can we expect our clients to appreciate the ‘value-add’ in our services, if it is seen as such low-skilled, low-budget, quick turnaround ‘stuff’?  The Apprentice contestants were actually on a hiding to nothing – it was completely unrealistic of the producers to expect them to do justice to the roof garden projects with the tiny budget allocated and a few hours to carry out the works. I am sure I would have been unsuccessful too in their shoes!

In the real world, there is some good news with regard to attracting new talent to the industry. I know in my role as MD of The Garden Company that there are a number of hugely talented young people already enjoying early success.  Last week, I enjoyed attending Pro Landscaper’s presentation of awards to the Next Generation: 30 under 30.  This is a wonderful initiative that seeks to recognise and reward the achievements every year of 30 inspiring young people in our industry.  The youngest winner this year was only 21 and the range of roles encompassed by the group was inspiring in itself.  It included landscapers, garden designers, maintenance services, landscape architects, arborists and suppliers specialising in technical products.

James and Helen Scott at Awards event
James and Helen Scott at an industry event promoting excellence in landscaping

Pro Landscaper plays a great role, and of course there are other initiatives that share the goal of inspiring more young people to enter this industry. I would like to give special mention to BALI’s Golandscape and the Landscape Institute’s #ChooseLandscape career campaigns, along with the Green Plan It challenge for schools led by the RHS.

However, with regard to the TV programme makers, the media and the wider public’s perception of what we do and how we do it: there seems to be very long way to go. Of course, every time we talk to prospective clients we need to demonstrate our value and results.  This includes helping people to appreciate the range of disciplines that we draw on – design, hardscaping, softscaping, horticulture, planning regulations …. I could go on!  I have always seen this as part of the ‘day job’.  However, I would love it to be made easier in future through a wider understanding of our services.

So …

What else can we start doing (or do more of) in our ‘day jobs’ to address both the skills shortages and the general lack of insight into our services?

  • Education, education, education We need to keep shouting out about how rewarding it is to have a career in landscape design, construction and horticulture.  This message needs to reach schools, colleges and anyone with an influence on shaping young peoples’ career choices.  By reassuring doubtful parents, teaching staff and careers advisers, then we can show school-age children what the industry is really about in the 21st century.  This includes its advantages over other jobs and career paths that may be in decline. I always to try respond helpfully to any requests for information/careers guidance etc from education providers,  but I could also create more opportunities to do so.
  • Create work placements/internships. A common complaint within British businesses is that colleges and universities do not prepare their graduates for the real world. Our industry is no exception. New job starters need to be ready to work in challenging situations, for discerning clients, applying the skills and knowledge that employers reasonably expect them to have.  A vital ingredient here is the availability of work placements and internship. We are delighted to offer 2-3 students a paid work placement every summer at The Garden Company.  We are also starting to explore design placements as well as more operational site-based roles.
  • Promote apprenticeships. Real apprentices (unlike Lord Sugar’s candidates!) carry out real jobs while they study, learn and acquire relevant skills and knowledge.  Many employers use apprenticeships to upskill existing workers as well as providing training for new employees. At the Garden Company we have benefited greatly in the last few years from ‘growing our own’ team members and team leaders through our own apprenticeship programme.  We aim to do a lot more of this going forward.

The recent Apprentice episode illustrated a couple of very real business challenges for providers of landscape and horticultural services (although not the ones that the programme makers intended).  We are lucky to have various trade associations, societies and others working hard to address both the ‘war for talent’ and our industry’s professional reputation.  Those of us that are ‘oldies’ with years of experience of fighting these two familiar battles must continue to play our role. I hope this blog post has prompted some ideas about where we can build on our efforts.  Your thoughts of course are very welcome.


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