Finding the right staff with the right ‘stuff’

By Gabrielle Stannus

How many of you have thought that your business could grow more if you could just find the right staff? Three horticultural professionals tell us what they look for when recruiting new employees, what they do to keep them, and how the industry can help.


Wholesale Nurseries: Alpine Nurseries
Alpine Nurseries is one of Australia’s largest wholesale nurseries, currently employing more than 130 people across three locations in NSW. Ken Bevan, General Manager, is responsible for recruitment.

“We focus on the person first; their character and underlying values are of critical importance. Training and development for technical skills is a much easier task. By focusing on the right fit, new recruits quickly assimilate into our team”, says Ken, “In my view, creating clear career paths and promoting internally are both critical factors in staff retention. I think we have done a pretty good job of that evidenced by the number of long serving team members. I really enjoy recruiting people from all walks of life that may have just completed university and are still searching for the right career through to mature age”.

Ken’s own entry into the industry was serendipitous. “By chance, I completed two weeks work experience that came about through a customer that happened to drop into my Dad’s framing shop at the right time. I thoroughly enjoyed those two weeks, particularly working with such a great team”.

Retail nurseries: Brian Merrick
Like Ken, Brian Merrick also gained his first horticultural job via a personal connection. His best friend’s dad, an old-school English horticulturist, offered him a job in an expanding nursery. Since then, Brian has worked in a range of multi-store to single-store retail nurseries in Australia and New Zealand. Now semi-retired, Brian continues to judge garden centres and mentor and consult to retail nurseries.

Like Ken, Brian firmly believes in bring people in at the base level of business and allow them to work their way through it. “Create areas of responsibility and give better renumeration for experience and responsibilities”, Brian says. “Always look for advancement from within. Provide staff with the opportunity to move up if they have the responsibility and experience.”

Brian acknowledges the reality that some people will move on. “Why are we training them so well, then they are moving on?”, Brian recalls being questioned by one employer. Brian’s response: “We have done the job so well that other businesses want them”.

Green infrastructure: Grow Collective
James Galloway is Managing Director of Grow Collective, a Brisbane-based start-up specialising in green infrastructure.

James’ specific challenge is to find the right people with the right skillset to work for him in an emerging industry. In one day, James’ technicians may start work in the company’s small nursery, then go onto a maintenance job before ending the day installing a trellis, façade or green wall. “Some people like to turn up to work and do the same thing each day, that is all they do”, says James. However, James requires people willing to be flexible, a bit adventurous and to push themselves.

James looks for people with the right attitude to working in a dynamic environment, saying “Personality is not taught or trained”. James found one of his best employees working at a Subway store whilst she was studying photography. A chance conversation led to that person having a trial at Grow Collective, where her love of learning and plants quickly became evident. Three years later, this staff member has established herself as a valued employee.

Improving industry perceptions
James believes that many people think that horticulture is beyond them, as they did not have the chance to garden as children.

To counter negative perceptions of the horticultural industry, Ken believes that a significant and potentially costly rebranding exercise is required at an industry level.

“I think people outside the industry have a very narrow outdated view of who we are and what we do as an industry”, says Ken. “We do this at a business level by having clearly articulated career pathways and continuously working on building our brand, but of course that is mainly effective for attracting prospective employees already interested in a career in horticulture”, he adds.

Brian concurs, suggesting careers advisors and teachers could better promote horticulture as an attractive career option to bright students heading to university. Instead, he claims it is still seen as an industry where workers are paid little. Improved award rates may help to attract the best and brightest.

What else can the industry do?
“By all accounts, the 202020 Vision has been such a success in creating awareness and helping to increase demand for greenlife. It would be great to see us leverage this asset by converting it into an effective recruitment strategy”, says Ken.

“To me, what people are really looking for is a sense of belonging and having a sense of purpose. In my view, we need to paint a much broader picture of passionate nursery professionals making a positive impact on the world, there are just so many positives around the environmental and social benefits of what we do, it is time to capitalise on that” concludes Ken.

Further help …
If you are looking to attract new graduates into your business, consider applying for the Hort Innovation Internship Program.

If you have someone in your business you think possesses management potential, encourage them to apply for the next intake of the Masterclass in Horticultural Business. This course is delivered online and will help that employee gain practical management and leadership skills.

Another great initiative for developing emerging leaders of the horticultural industry is the Green Industry Growing Leaders Program. All tuition fees are covered. But hurry, as the applications for the next intake close 5pm, Friday 8 March 2019.

If that person you want to keep is a female employee, you may wish to consider putting them forward for a Women’s Leadership Development scholarship. A pool of scholarships is occasionally available for women in the horticulture sector to participate in a range of leadership courses.

Sometimes the best person for your job may not even live in the country. If you are considering recruiting from overseas, check out the Department of Home Affairs advice on sponsoring workers from overseas.