From education to employment

Bloom to grow! The importance of horticultural apprenticeships to the economy

For gardening enthusiasts across the UK this week (and aren’t we a nation of gardeners?), the only news is the Chelsea Flower Show. Originally founded in 1804 with the purpose of “encouraging and improving the science, art and practice of horticulture in all its branches”, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has held its annual Great Spring Show at the Royal Hospital Chelsea  since 1913.

I always find it a fascinating event. Not only does this hardy perennial sit alongside Henley regatta, tennis at Wimbledon and opera at Glyndebourne as a seminal event in the establishment calendar, but it combines the sheer extravagance of show gardens costing £250,000, an industry worth £9 billion a year and the glamour and grace of the ubiquitous and lovely Joanna Lumley.

Of course behind the magnificence of the stunning flower displays, the cut and thrust of the competition and the front page photo of the Queen peering from behind a lupin, lies not just the RHS’s original vision, but the army of people who make the Chelsea illusion happen.

While the nature of horticulture means at times it demands some muscle, it is a field (please excuse the pun!) which requires highly skilled and trained people, not only to create and deliver the kind of wonders we see at Chelsea, but to develop the plant science and research needed to address 21st century issues like conservation and sustainability.

I was reminded of these technical aspects of horticulture by the Technicians Make it Happen   campaign which was launched by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation in April. There are 1.5 million technicians in the UK combining knowledge and expertise in science, technology, engineering and maths with hands-on skills and experience. As Gatsby describes them, ‘technicians are the linchpins of the economy.’

However, Gatsby research shows that over a quarter of firms working in STEM are finding it difficult to recruit technicians and it is becoming increasingly problematic. Via a travelling exhibition of painting, videos and photographs, Gatsby hope to inspire the next generation of technicians. A number of companies are supporting the campaign including the BBC, Microsoft, the RAF, RAL Space and the University of Cambridge where horticulture technician Sally works.

Having always wanted to work in horticulture, Sally completed a National Diploma in Horticulture as soon as she left school and after work with the National Trust in Northern Ireland and Threave Gardens in Scotland, she’s now working for the University of Cambridge’s Botanic Gardens . Her role involves growing specimens for the University’s experiments alongside which she curates several plant collections of her own.  She says:

‘What I love most is the variety of plants I cultivate,’ she says. ‘From a glasshouse full of rice and tomatoes to high alpine cushion-forming plants to unusual succulents, along with interesting requests from around the world.’

Of course Edge has its own interests in the plant world with the apprenticeship programme we support at the Eden Project in Cornwall. All education courses offered at Eden are work-based so students benefit from learning first-hand in a dynamic and professional workplace echoing Edge’s belief in the value of ‘learning by doing’.

The programme is now in its second year and going from strength to strength. Two apprentices won awards at the 2015 Cornwall Apprenticeships Awards last year and earlier this year Horticulture Apprentices won the Silver Prize for the second year running at the Cornwall Spring Flower Show  for creating a flowerless garden!

One of their number is supporting our Career Footsteps campaign.  Rosie Wade left school with 10 GCSEs and three A levels and all the careers advice she was given pointed her towards university. Perplexed that there seemed to be few options open to her, she opted to study photography, but soon realised it wasn’t for her.

She took some time out to travel and whilst tending an allotment and working on rooftop gardens in Australia she realised where she wanted to focus her career. Since beginning her apprenticeship at Eden she has developed a keen interest in rainforest conservation and sustainability and is currently designing and creating a new exhibit for the oil palms at Eden.

Rosie is passionate about her job and career. She says:

‘My job is great and I love getting up and going to work. It’s such a fun and creative place to be and I’m so glad I chose to do an apprenticeship here.  Everyone should have the chance to follow their passion whether that takes them to college, university or into work.’

The horticulture industry is expansive and we encounter it every day. In the gardens of stately homes or visitor attractions which we visit, the local parks where we play, the displays and flowerbeds on our high street, when we marry and when we die.  The technicians who create the spectacle of the Chelsea Flower Show touch all areas of the UK’s economy from the research lab, to the farm, to the garden nursery where we might find the plants to create our bit of Chelsea magic in our own garden.

Alice Barnard is chief executive of Edge

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