It’s been estimated that the UK’s farming industry will need to recruit a massive 60,000 new employees over the next five years in order to replace people retiring from the industry. The most forward-thinking farming businesses have spotted the looming skills gap and are embracing opportunities to fill it.
One such business is AC Goatham & Son, a fruit grower and packer that harvests apples, pears and a small quantity of cherries, and which has recruited two apprentices from Sainsbury’s horticulture and agriculture apprenticeship scheme. We caught up with Nigel Stewart, Technical Director at AC Goatham & Son and Esther Harvey, one of the two apprentices he supervises. Nigel, who has decades of experience in ‘top fruit’ farming, performs a broad role covering produce quality as well as storage and maturing at harvest time. We began by asking him what apprenticeships have meant to the industry historically.
“Almost 40 years ago I was a horticultural apprentice myself, employed by a small fruit farm and going to college for a week every couple of months. In those days there were four separate apprenticeships available covering top fruit; mine was focused on tree husbandry and tractor driving skills. Then, during the next 20 or 25 years, there was just one apprenticeship route available, and then, eventually, there were no courses offered to anyone who wanted to enter the top fruit industry. The industry went through a bad patch. Returns were quite poor and people probably couldn’t see a future in it. The result was a skills gap. Things have looked a lot brighter over the last five years, and confidence is returning to the industry.”
Although these are certainly more optimistic times for farming, the darker years have left a worrying skills shortage. There are few individuals who have the skillset Nigel and his team are looking for so training up young people from scratch as apprentices is a perfect recruitment model, as Nigel explains:
“Young people coming in who want to learn from a zero skills base are great for us. Headhunting is very expensive and people don’t necessarily have the exact skills we require. It makes more sense to find young, enthusiastic people to fill the gaps. We’re not just training people to be tractor drivers anymore. We’re now training them in technical IT skills, as well as wider farming practices.”
Esther Harvey (pictured), who’s 20, did GCSES and A Levels in Biology, History and Business Studies before joining AC Goatham & Son on the 20-month Sainsbury’s apprenticeship. She explains why an apprenticeship appealed to her:
“I chose an apprenticeship because I got to stay in education and work at the same time. My daily work depends on the season. In the winter I’m mostly outside doing hands-on tasks. During harvest time I could be testing apples to see the sugar levels.
“I enjoy the variety of what I do and that I can learn from the people around me like Nigel. It’s also a really great way to help me to decide what I want to do as my career develops as I am working in so many different areas of the business. I’m glad I chose to do it.”
AC Goatham & Son is a relatively large business, managing orchards on some 16 farms. One of the projects undertaken by Esther and her fellow apprentice Nathan Carter, is concerned with using software to collate data from each orchard in order to improve the traceability of the fruit. As Nigel explains, this is an excellent opportunity to gain a very broad perspective on the business:
“Nathan and Esther are bringing together all these pockets of data, visiting every farm and seeing each orchard. They’ll see how orchards, planting systems and the varieties of fruit differ, getting a great overview of our work.”
Much of the advertising and recruitment that led to Esther and Nathan’s appointments was conducted by Staffline, the training provider. Having been sent the details of around 20 candidates, Nigel interviewed 12, on the lookout for one very specific personality trait:
“What I was looking for more than anything else was enthusiasm, which we feel is the biggest driver. We can teach whatever we need to but we can’t make people enthusiastic; that has to be there from the start and we definitely got the two most enthusiastic apprentices.”
Significantly, that youthful enthusiasm has been contagious, sparking other AC Goatham & Son employees to express renewed interest in training. Nigel says:
“So many other employees have suddenly become interested in training since the apprentices arrived. They hear about what they’re being taught and approach me to ask if there’s some training they could do themselves in their own area of work. Having apprentices has raised morale and reinvigorated people; they think ‘maybe I could get some training and do more within the company.”
A real apprenticeship champion, as well as someone whose own career has its foundation in the model, Nigel sees apprenticeships as creating a win/win situation for the farming industry, for individual farming businesses and for the apprentices themselves:
“The farms that survive are those bringing talented, driven young people in from outside and teaching those guys how they do things to provide innovation and continuity. For an apprentice entering a business, although they may not begin in the area or role they ultimately end up doing, that valuable groundwork can open up a massive number of interesting opportunities.”