The great challenge to growth in horticulture

14 December 2021
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My Christmas and New Year greetings to you this year are as heartfelt as those of Ebenezer Scrooge, waking on Christmas morning and realising that yes, there was something worth celebrating! We have been resilient, adaptive, positive, and creative, and found strength as a sector to survive and often thrive in the most difficult circumstances for decades! So, take a bow, and get ready to enjoy the season however you choose, knowing you deserve the metaphorical (or real!) Champagne. Well done.

So, here’s the serious bit. Covid and Brexit are of course not going away, but we are generally rising to the challenge of ‘The New Normal’, and that’s not to downplay the stress and complexity we have all faced and continue to face as part of daily life. I absolutely recognise that as with 2020, this year has been no picnic for anyone operating a business. Yet, despite the many challenges we face, demand for horticultural products remains strong, with many business owners reporting record demand. Certainly, as we approach the end of the year and face the prospects of a new year ahead, I sense that optimism remains high but there is one cloud hanging over this optimism that we need to address.  There may be significant growth opportunities for many businesses, but this growth will be stifled or limited by the significant skills shortage and skills gap in our industry.  By skills shortage I mean the number of people available to take up paid employment, and by skills gap I mean the lack of skills in the current available work force to do the jobs.  A double whammy unfortunately when it comes to our workforce needs - like having billions of children waiting but no trained Elves or fit reindeer on Christmas Eve!

The problem we have is that there are simply not enough people in the workplace. 1 million vacancies in the UK remain unfilled – particularly in horticulture, and there are very few people trained in basic horticultural skills. Why? Probably because there are even fewer younger students than in recent years being attracted to and engaging in horticultural courses, something we desperately need to change.

So, what can be done? Well, solving the issue completely is clearly a long-term project and will need government initiatives and cross industry support and cooperation.  There will be no Christmas miracle with ideal and skilled staff applicants suddenly lining up outside your door! There are however some strategies you can adopt in the short to medium term to alleviate your staff crisis. It is encouraging for example to see that many mature adults are re-considering their careers, perhaps evidenced by an uplift in the number in this age group enrolling on horticultural courses. Here then is an untapped market – career changers. True, they will cost you more to employ, but that will be outweighed by the extra skills and life experience they can bring to your organisation. If you are interested in employing younger people, then consider creating apprenticeships. As a result of the government apprenticeship levy there is funding available to assist with the cost of employing apprentices – you never know, today’s apprentices in your organisation could, if managed well and encouraged, be your future leaders.

If, however you still find it impossible to get bodies into your organisation then you might have to adopt other strategies. This could involve outsourcing all those activities that add no value to your organisation, or those that could be done more effectively by external companies such as bookkeeping, marketing or health and safety administration. Alternatively, you could consider simplifying your customer offer – the less range you have, the less work there will be as suppliers, deliveries, and all the corresponding paperwork will be reduced. In addition, it is worth considering if any manual processes could be stripped out of your business by automation. We may well see self-service tills in garden centres soon for example.  They are now commonplace with many retailers and have proved effective, but introduce with caution, as I believe the garden centre customer is used to or generally expects a personal service with ‘traditional’ customer care.  True, many customers might revolt against automated tills, but surely if you cannot get staff to work your till, it must be a viable option? Just make sure any automatic services are backed up by a human trouble shooter available and trained!

Perhaps however the easiest win available to deal with any staff shortages is to ensure that your existing labour force is more productive. This doesn’t mean that they work longer hours or harder, just that they carry out their tasks in a more efficient manner. Implementing this will involve a long hard look at the processes their work involves and identifying if any activities can be stripped out or done more efficiently. Essentially you will be adopting a lean management approach, and if successful you should be able to achieve a higher output with less staff. The mantra ‘work smarter not harder’ should be your guide.

Finally, and here’s a real challenge – try to hold on to your staff! We know that if they leave, they will be difficult to replace, so make sure that their working environment is interesting, supportive, and constructive. If they are motivated, appreciated and rewarded, there’s a chance they will stay and fulfil their potential long term as your business’s greatest assets and strength.

Those who know me will know I am not one for whimsy, but I do know that most successful Christmas films have a plot line, where basic decent human values and kindness trump the grinch bah humbug approach to life, and I would urge you to apply this to the way you recruit and treat your staff! You literally cannot afford not to. These films also often centre on a life changing moment, when unhappy souls realise Santa exists (in the unlikely event any children are reading this!), and that’s what we also need to make happen in our wonderful world of horticulture. We need a seismic change, where people not only realise and embrace the joys and benefits of horticulture but realise what a spectacular and alternative life changing career it could be. Maybe you also need reminding of this sometimes? If so, I hope this festive season gives you time to reflect, and a positive year ahead helps you remember why you entered this sector, and however many years later are still here.

Wishing you a Very Happy Christmas