Apprenticeships have had a bad press recently. Last December the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, John Hayes, announced a quality review, while in January the heads of the Skills Funding Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) took the media by surprise by announcing their resignations on the same day, writes Helen Gazeley.
January also saw a report of the failed football-coach training-scheme that disappointed hundreds of youngsters, and it’s been revealed that some schemes only last twelve weeks and carry no guarantee of employment at the end. Political commentator Polly Toynbee has been scathing, and John Hayes agreed that “as we increase the quantity of apprenticeships there will be a tension with quality”.
Under the umbrella of the National Apprenticeship Service, their scheme is exclusive to the GCG, with no plans for the course materials to be offered elsewhere. Tom Martell, the group’s Head of Training, explains, “We’re developing our people of the future. It’s not about us becoming a training company.”
The GCG (who own Wyevale’s and Blooms, among others) operates 128 garden centres around England and Wales, employing more than 5000 people, and Tom reports that they’ve already had a number of applications for the apprenticeships from their current staff.
Much of the training will be delivered by the GCG themselves, as they’ve built up what Tom describes as “a significant volume of e-learning”, already in use on its management trainee programme. However, they’ve also teamed up with Pershore College to create day-release courses, bespoke to the GCG. The 12-month apprenticeship will include two Masterclass days a month, delivered at various colleges around the country commissioned by Pershore. “There’s a day on fencing and paving,” says Tom, “and during that day’s experience they’ll be laying slabs, putting up a fence. On the soil science day, they do pH and nutrient tests. All stuff that they couldn’t possibly do in the garden centre but which adds value.”
The scheme forms part of a 5-year plan and follows an examination by GCG of how to get school leavers into garden centres. “We need staff at all levels, can train people at all levels and can give a career at all levels.” Those successfully completing one level will be offered training at the next, with a view to taking many up to managerial level at the end of the 5-year period.
“We’re more than willing to take apprentices of any age,” adds Tom, but points out that with various age-dependent levels of funding available and the apprenticeship wages (around £95 per week), he expects applications mainly from 16-20 year-olds.
Up to 300 horticultural apprenticeships will be available each year, with the closing date for applications for this spring’s 175 vacancies being 19th March. More apprenticeships will open in the summer/autumn. Most will culminate in a Diploma for Horticulture – Garden Centre, but a select six will be in Horticulture – Nursery Production, with those apprentices working at one of the GCG’s four nurseries around England.
It’s possible that such a scheme will give the GCG a competitive advantage, merely by existing. According to the website of the NAS, their research shows that over 80% of people are more likely to use a business if it offers apprenticeships to young people.
However, other training schemes do exist within the industry. Sarah Squire, Deputy Chairman of Squire’s Garden Centres, points out that they run their own in-house training, which allows them to make it bespoke to their garden centres’ circumstances and day-to-day occurrences. “If you invest in training, you get a competitive advantage,” she says, “with motivated, keen staff.”
She also wonders if the NAS’s research applies to retail. “If I was hiring a plumber, then I’d want to know they invested in training – I can’t see what they’re doing under the sink - but retail is probably a slightly different thing.” She wishes the GCG luck, however. “Any form of quality training is good and it raises the profile of the sector.”
Every firm that offers training faces the possibility that recipients will leave soon after benefiting, but Tom is sanguine. “At the end of the day, if you’ve given them a good experience, they come back and work for you again. Marks and Spencer, John Lewis—they’re the gold standard of staff training. We want to be regarded as that in the Garden Centre Group.”
Other apprenticeship schemes:
The GCG’s aren’t the only apprenticeships centred in horticulture. Nearly 70 positions are currently offered on the NAS website, including apprenticeships in garden maintenance, greenkeeping, landscape gardening horticulture.