Gardening: Learning the trade

Gardening - Learning the TradeI think I must be getting old. Oh, Lord – there I’ve said it.

Though I’ve spent years berating my father for uttering that phrase, genetics would appear to have won through, as if some time sensitive-trigger mechanism has been tripped in my DNA relating to age consciousness. Yet the fact remains that it seems only yesterday that we were preparing for the onset of spring and waiting for the buds to burst forth; I must have blinked because the summer is already waning. The wonderfully intense heat that I adore is already slowly leaking out of the days, and dusk is starting his inexorable crawl back towards late afternoon so that darkness can reclaim the early evenings. I wonder sometimes why it feels that the passage of time appears faster with each passing year. The seasons seem now to flicker past, in a way too fast to enjoy. I used to believe that I was just busier each year, however I know now this isn’t possible. I’ve come to the conclusion that the human perception of the rate of passage of time continually increases, as any fixed amount of time is a continually smaller fraction of the total experience of your lifetime, hence it feels shorter. I’m sure someone far wiser than I has elaborately discussed this subject in a thesis – I just haven’t had the time to read it. Oh to rediscover that wonderful sensation felt as a child: playing in the garden at the start of the summer holidays you had eternity in front of you. Now, only two days after starting my summer holiday I’m already thinking about the important things that need to be done at work when I get back. Indeed, the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw, “youth is wasted on the young” never seemed more true (and no, it wasn’t Robbie Williams that penned that phrase into the song Eternity in case you were wondering – but I will admit that I also had to look up the real author).

Apprenticeships: worth more to the nation than taxing the rich

On the subject of youth, it’s that time of year again we welcome into our ranks at the company a new apprentice (or two). This we do every year in partnership with the agricultural college in Antibes, which looks to place students for between one and three years in companies, while they prepare for various levels of exams in the horticultural industry. Amazingly they struggle to find places at times for all of the students. I feel passionately about this: it’s crucial that young people learn practical skills “on site” whilst gaining valuable industry experience in order that they be able to make a useful participation later on. This has a huge influence on their chances of gaining employment at the end of their studies – and I can confidently say this with more authority than any politician since I run a small company and I take the decision who to employ. Over the years we have seen about one in two stay with us at the end of their apprenticeship to become a full-time employee, and some of our best new employees have followed this path. I started my working life with no intention of having anything to do with the horticultural industry – yet thanks to a year of experience within it – realised that this was where I could fulfil my potential doing something that I really enjoyed and that fitted my skill set.

It’s a shame that successive governments continue to focus on what is, in my opinion, the wrong end of the spectrum to solve their problems; you can’t keep looking at taxation of “the rich” (itself a rather dubious concept) as the solution. Instead, it’s the upcoming generations that will fill the boots of the older, and conversely, without employment, add dramatically to the cost of providing social protection. Ultimately, having a maximum number of young people gainfully employed as early as possible has to be, in my book, the surest way to ensuring individual fulfilment, community cohesion and enduring prosperity. It’s therefore very sad that “manual” industries seem to be looked at with such low esteem: so many of the young people I vet for new positions have tried every kind of job imaginable and would rather be something else, or better still, a fonctionnaire, than get their hands dirty.

The “pâtissier” theory

Indeed, when you step back and look at it, there has been an unrelenting devaluation of manual professions – this has to change. Although apprenticeships exist, the system needs to be widened and strengthened, back to something similar to a century ago when you properly learnt a trade before taking a fully-fledged role in a job. For some reason, as it is, when a entrance level position becomes avail- able we collect applications of every kind – yet we receive a disproportionate number of applications from young men who have first tried their hand at just about everything, but among other things, being
pâtissiers. A theory to explain the “pâtissier phenomenon in horticulture” is still a work in progress. Being a sucker for the enthusiastic and willing underdog however I’ll often give them a chance. Sadly, during the first couple of months they are often as useful in a team as a chocolate teapot, and we have to train them in every aspect of the profession. This can be expensive for us since all the while we’re paying full costs – salary and social. How much better it would be that they had followed an apprenticeship scheme? Not only would this allow them to learn the skills they need under the umbrella of reduced costs to the company training them, but also allow them to “commit” to a specific trade, something which if not present is rather an obstacle to training within a company as the risk is greater they are going to disappear when the going gets tough.

I believe France has got much right in many respects: good social protection (provided by the heavily-legislated labour law) and the fantastic healthcare (funded by high company social costs) are both in themselves things to be proud of in a modern society – but even the most dim-witted politician must see what every business owner knows: these collude to create a massive barrier to entry to employment at the lower level. While the apprentice system is open to abuse (I know small firms that have as many apprentices as full-time staff which is patently ridiculous) this is easily legislated against. As a small company I cap the number of apprentices to two (against a backdrop of twenty-five full-time staff) to ensure proper encadrement.

Apprenticeships remain though, in my opinion, one of the best ways to ease the passage into full-time employment for those with few industry specific skills, bridging the gap between unemployed and employed, making it easier on both sides during the transition. If you happen to know a politician, please feel free to give them a shake.

By James Hartley
Director, English Garden Group


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