College meeting to discuss widening skills gap

Leading members of the horticulture and agriculture industries gathered recently to discuss the growing skills gap in both sectors.
​Industry figures have expressed concern at the low number of entrants to both horticulture and agriculture.​Industry figures have expressed concern at the low number of entrants to both horticulture and agriculture.
​Industry figures have expressed concern at the low number of entrants to both horticulture and agriculture.

The number of new entrants to the sectors is worryingly low according to attendees at stakeholder events held at Dundee and Angus College.

Without increasing the number of school leavers entering the industries and persuading adult learners to try new skills, businesses will struggle to recruit enough staff in coming years.

Professor Derek Stewart, Director of the Advanced Plant Growth Centre at the James Hutton Institute, said: “There is a huge demand for new entrants within horticulture and landscaping skills globally, particularly horticulture.

“We have to eat and the benefits of green space have been identified, so the prospects of new entrants to have high earning skills are there.

“Dundee is in the middle of a verdant valley. It’s green and it’s the soft fruit centre of the UK. It’s the perfect place to grow and test new technologies, new solutions, ideas and businesses. This is where the students need to be trained.”

The horticulture event took place at Dundee and Angus College’s Kingsway Campus and the agriculture gathering was at the college’s Arbroath Campus and outdoor learning facilities at the Glebe.

Attendees included Aberdeen Council, Lantra, Angus Glens Moorland Group, Gammies Groundcare and Scotland’s Rural College.

Students looking to enter the horticulture and landscaping sector need to learn basic scientific knowledge as well as design, numeracy and digital skills.

D&A College is working with employers to ensure new entrants have the right skills and that they know the opportunities open to them.

Colin Ainsworth, President of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, said: “It’s about time the local authorities injected a bit of horticulture into what they are doing.

“What bothers me is the skills gap. In fact, it’s not a gap, it’s a chasm. Back in the day, the council was probably putting ten apprentices a year through the college but now it’s probably down to zero some years.

"I know councils are under the cosh, but I think it’s short-sighted.”

As well as a shortage of labour, the agriculture industry is also looking to bring down the average age of its workforce.

John Smith, a farmer and Trustee of the Dundee and Angus Foundation, said: “We have a shortage of workers and we need people coming in who are under the average age for the industry just now to keep the industry sustainable and progressing.”

Chris Stockwell, Training and Work Based Learning Lead at SRUC, said: “There is a big need at the moment for young people to work on farms, particularly with Brexit and a lack of labour from Europe.

“There is a big opportunity for young people to come into the industry.

“If you get your qualifications when you are young you will get into full-time employment very quickly which will lead to progression opportunities.

“There are plenty of opportunities and plenty of pathways so you can start at different levels.”

Dundee and Angus College have four courses on offer in horticulture and agriculture.

At the Arbroath campus, there is the level 4 Introduction to Agriculture and Estate Skills which offers a taster of different opportunities in the sector including crop production, tree and shrub planting, tractor driving, fencing and landscaping projects.

There are no strict entrance requirements.

At the Kingsway campus, there is an SVQ2 in Landscaping and Horticulture. This is a level 5 course with a broad range of hard and soft landscaping skills as well as plant production.

Students from this course often progress to HNC, a Modern Apprenticeship or into the workplace.

No formal entrance requirements are in place but students are required to have a good general academic ability (level 5) and an interest in working outside.

D&A also offer work-based qualifications in the form of SVQ 2 and SVQ3 Horticulture Modern Apprenticeships from the Kingsway campus.

Candidates must be employed to enrol on these programmes and applications for these programmes should be made by employers directly with the college.

The Horticultural Trades Association has also already expressed concern over the threat to the trade posed by the widening skills gap.

At the end of last year, the UK body for garden businesses has was warning of risks to the availability of supplies for home and professional gardeners in Scotland, due to a worsening shortage of staff in the environmental horticulture sector.

NFU Scotland has also been urging the Scottish Government to continue to work with the agricultural sector on measures that enables the farming community to attract workers by supporting training and skills development, the adoption of new technologies and positively promoting career opportunities.

Specific requests include the development of more formal Continual Professional Development (CPD) programmes; greater recognition at school level of opportunities for employment in the agri-food sector and the further development of apprenticeships and recognition that training within the agricultural workforce can present specific issues around remoteness, transport and connectivity.