Grow your own workforce

Monday, 6 April 2020

Coronavirus has had a significant impact on the availability of seasonal labour for horticulture. We spoke to G’s Marketing Director, Anthony Gardiner, about their marketing campaign to recruit British workers into their business to help plug the gaps.

The horticulture industry has been facing increasing pressure over the last few years to secure access to seasonal workers, not least because of changes to immigration policy as a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union. Seasonal workers make up a significant proportion of the overall workforce in horticulture, and figures estimate that the industry requires around 70,000 workers annually, who predominantly come from Central Europe. The new challenge presented by coronavirus has significantly compounded this issue and sent a shockwave throughout the industry by effectively preventing most workers from Europe joining UK businesses to help with picking, packing and logistics.

Gracie Emeny, Knowledge Exchange Manager at AHDB, says, “We know businesses are responding as best they can to extraordinary circumstances. AHDB has a role to look at what is affecting growers now but also possibly in the future. Although the impact of this pandemic is unprecedented, SmartHort is a good example of a programme that focuses on recruitment and labour issues, where we have learned techniques that may be useful for growers who are currently facing working in extremely lean environments.”

The SmartHort campaign shares knowledge about how to improve management practices to help with recruitment, retention and labour efficiencies, as well as accelerating automation and robotics for longer-term solutions.

Gracie continues, “We also have practical materials to help with induction, from health and safety training to demonstrating how to harvest fruit. The work AHDB has previously done with SmartHort could help some businesses with tips on people management, as growers are having to look at alternative sources of labour.”

Market analysis, practical advice and links to resources for dealing with coronavirus

Case study: G's 

G’s Growers

  • Independent producer organisation with 17 grower members in the UK
  • UK sites in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Kent, West Sussex and the West Midlands
  • International locations in Spain, Eastern Europe, USA and South Africa
  • Crops include baby leaf and salad, celery, radish, onions, leeks and salad onions

Anthony Gardiner heads up the marketing team at G’s. Finding itself with 2,500 vacancies to fill, the organisation tasked the marketing and human resources team to create a new campaign to recruit from within the UK. This was no mean feat, but the result was its ‘Feed our Nation’ campaign.

“We considered several options, including flying workers from Europe in directly. However, people were obviously cautious about taking that risk. There was the added challenge of getting people to the airports as most countries in central Europe are under considerable travel restrictions as well. It soon became clear we would have to look at the option of recruiting from within the UK,” says Anthony.

“We turned around a national recruitment campaign in just four days – something that would normally take around four months to plan and execute. We were fortunate to secure coverage from the BBC, which led to multiple national newspapers contacting us to hear our story,” he says.

“While many of the jobs we advertise are field-based, we have a range of roles, from packhouse, drivers to engineers. We can offer a whole range of opportunities for different skill sets and experiences, so it was important to make that clear,” he adds.

Their UK harvest starts from late April, with peak harvest running from Mid-May until October, so time was of the essence to get people trained up.

“Within four days we’d had over 600 applications, a phenomenal response. We targeted students who weren’t able to go back to university until September and those who had been made redundant from the hospitality sector. Businesses from the food-supply industry were also important as many had been hit hard by this virus. The market for convenience food, like ready-made sandwiches, went overnight, so those workers were ideal for us to speak to. They already have the food hygiene skills we need and are used to working energetically,” Anthony explains.

“The floral market was another industry for us to connect with, as they have been particularly badly affected with the closure of garden centres. So, we felt there were plenty of people in the UK who have the right background, and our marketing had to attract them.” 

Once UK workers are recruited, training to ensure productivity doesn’t drop is crucial. G’s has found having experienced Eastern European workers already in place is vital to help settle new recruits in, most importantly in keeping people safe.

They also recognised one of the key challenges to be faced is how to keep workers engaged and motivated to drive productivity. Anthony says, “In a ‘normal’ season, we would have a mix of new seasonal agricultural workers with returnees, as we know their productivity is three times higher than new workers. We’re not sure how the psychology of those who have found themselves working in agriculture through extraordinary circumstance will impact productivity yet.

“Retention is a big focus for us. We don’t want to lose workers quickly and have to re-recruit. We have ex-military staff to help with motivational psychology and we’ll be looking at creating new induction materials for anyone who is new to agriculture.”

Anthony is keen for there to be an industry-wide collaborative approach to this recruitment drive, if the sector is going to cope with the lack of seasonal workers.

“This campaign needs a coordinated, national approach. It needs to be easy for anyone who wants to work to be placed in the industry, so there needs to be a central place where they can find local gaps in employment that would suit them,” he explains.

Hayley Campbell-Gibbons, AHDB Board Member and Chair of AHDB Horticulture, recognises the concern felt by many across the industry. “Accessing seasonal labour can be a fraught area for growers at the best of times, but sourcing workers during a global pandemic is a challenge of seismic proportions.

“AHDB is working with the government and stakeholders to find solutions that might prevent a labour shortage. There’s no avoiding the fact that this industry relies on people though, and, while it won't necessarily solve the problem, appealing to the nation to help with this year's harvest might provide some much-needed support to growers at a time they need it most."

Market analysis, practical advice and links to resources for dealing with coronavirus