Director of Grounds
University of Exeter
Our Grounds staff are very willing to share their knowledge with people who are not as experienced as themselves. There were initial barriers about who could provide the apprenticeship training that we required, but with support from People Services we were able to identify the training providers and we also had the opportunity to say what training we were looking for. What we ended up with is something that I hope will be bespoke and valuable to the service. It is a particular advantage to have the Apprenticeship Levy which helps with the whole funding of the apprenticeship scheme.
One of my reasons for signing up to the apprenticeship scheme and recognising its value is the basis that it is sometimes quite difficult to recruit experienced staff when we advertise for horticulturalists as we get quite a wide range of people applying. A lot of applicants don’t seem to have the skill set that we are looking for to be able to work in this particular environment. The high end expectation is that we will produce a very high standard of product here and Apprenticeships provide the opportunity to do that by making sure the apprentice is getting qualifications alongside their practical work on our campus. I think the University of Exeter offers a wide range of horticultural experience, so we are hoping we’ll be able to bring in apprentices to be part of our grounds team for a long standing relationship.
We are looking for people who are able to do something in the glass house, with fine turf, shrubs, trees, bedding plants – it’s the wide range of skill sets that we are looking for. There are a lot of people who know how to do gardening jobs who can operate a piece of machinery safely but they don’t necessarily know the difference between a Pansy and a Peony and it’s those type of things, and an attention to detail, we are looking for. This is because if a member of the public, student of staff member stops the gardening team on campus we are expecting them to be relatively knowledgeable and to explain to them what they are working on, why they are doing it. This is also important for the university’s reputation and our green flag status as well.
It’s important that our grounds team have a passion for their work, understand why they are doing the job, what the importance of that is and what it means for the university.
We currently have one Horticulture Level 3 apprentice in post at the moment (Beth Farren), and Beth has already been involved in identifying a project at Reed Hall gardens where she stripped out a bed and is doing the research into what the highly influential Veitch family of nurserymen would have originally put in, and she’s due to re-plant on the basis of the research she’s done round about that. That allows us to communicate to the people that use Reed Hall to say this is an historic garden and we’re busy replanting according to how it would have originally been done to preserve and enhance the grounds, with the added bonus of giving someone training alongside that. It has a holistic approach that has generated interest for Beth, for Cornwall College Group (Bicton College) who are providing the apprenticeship, and also for members of staff who have been able to give their views and advice. Our grounds team managers have been getting involved advising what the correct techniques might be employed there, so it’s been something that’s engaged the whole team and outside the team as well.
Beth has to think about how she treats the soil and what she is doing, because it’s a listed landscape and we want to do it as sympathetically as possible, and as sustainably as possible. Beth and her project is looking to make sure we reuse some of the green waste we generate on site and plant that back into the area. This is a great example showing what we do, but also gives Beth the opportunity to make a difference.
Apprenticeships will ensure we secure the skill set for the future because the marketplace is pretty tight for what we are looking for and the best way of delivering the product is to actually get them in and get them trained up to understand what we are trying to achieve in the University – Grow our own. So, having an apprentice has been invaluable, and I’m sure we’ll get value out of the arboriculture apprentice we are about to recruit as they will get greater understanding of what the custodianship of our large tree stock is going to be and what that involves, which is slightly different from the commercial sector where they mainly fell and prune trees. Our Arb apprentice will do a lot of tree planting and making sure the landscape is here for future years to enjoy.
It shouldn’t really matter who visits our grounds, whether it’s a member of the public, student, member of staff it’s the same experience you want to give people. Apprentices get an understanding of this early on, and the value of having an open space where the University invests almost a million pounds a year looking after the grounds, so that other people can enjoy them, is a community benefit and a resource for the city of Exeter – we do have a few rules and regulations so that people respect our grounds when they are here, but it is a valuable community asset and the apprentices play a role in providing that.
Apprenticeships in the grounds team have introduced the ability to exchange information. Our apprentice moves around different teams, all with different skill sets. It’s interesting to see the interaction between the apprentice and our staff, apprentices bring a passion, enthusiasm and on some occasions breathe new life into our teams. In terms of dynamics within the team, it’s always interesting to have somebody who wants to learn working alongside somebody more experienced, and getting feedback so we try to make sure we appoint the person who’s going to be right and a good fit for the team. We are looking for people to be passionate about what they are doing, attend college regularly, engage with our staff and add value to our teams.
As part of our 1:1s and annual appraisals we are identifying areas we think might be good for our current staff as an individual and for the service in terms of giving staff apprenticeship training opportunities and experience. The apprenticeships scheme within the University is a broad scheme and we are grateful for that. It means that people from school age to our more mature staff are able to access training and funding.