Overcoming the labour shortage in horticulture

Research in Wales has repeatedly found that a lack of available labour is an impediment to horticultural business growth.  Informal discussions with potential employees (students, un- and under-employed) indicate that two factors have a strong impact on this:

Firstly, potential employees are unaware of opportunities with local growers.  Advertising in the press is not cost-effective for short-term posts.  Advertising positions with the Job Centre seems ineffective and often results in candidates who are uninterested in work applying for posts to meet the Job Centre’s requirements rather than because they have any interest in the position.

This problem of promotion is one which could be overcome relatively simply. 

The second factor adversely affecting recruitment in the horticultural sector is the perception of poor terms and working conditions.  It is undeniably true that some horticultural work is physically demanding, has to be done in horrible weather conditions and is mundane and repetitive.  But one of horticulture’s strongest points is the huge diversity of jobs that are available in it.  Growers need to raise awareness of this diversity.  And even for the most back-breaking, finger-freezing work, there is a willing pool of would-be employees, if they only new about the opportunities.

A more intractable problem is that of pay.  Margins are tight for many growers, so they feel they cannot afford to pay better wages.  But a better pay offer, coupled with the right terms and conditions, is an investment that will yield returns.  There will be less staff turnover (churn) –which is costly in terms of training, recruitment and morale; and there should be improved productivity.  Taking both of these into consideration, investing in improvements to employee terms and conditions may well be one of the best options for a grower.

Wage data are notoriously difficult to analyse.  However, Defra’s data for Agriculture and Horticulture Wages suggest that, when inflation is taken into account, wages for full-time female employees in 2009 were nearly 6% lower than they were five years earlier.  The figure was similar for full-time male employees, but they did earn more than 10% per hour more than their female colleagues. 

Rather than joining the race to the bottom, growers would be well advised to strive to be the best employer they can.  People need nurturing as much as plants.  People management is one of the trickiest parts of business, but getting to grips with it is one of the primary keys to success.