Saturday, July 20, 2024
Working in a botanic garden requires a diverse range of skills such as creating the de-signs for the Calyx exhibitions at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (Image: Karen Smith)

Career progression without becoming a manager or starting a business

By Daniel Fuller

For most of my decade-long career in the landscape maintenance sector, I truly believed that I only had two pathways to progress my career in the horticulture industry – move into management at a large company, or start my own maintenance business. I wonder, do you feel the same way?

Neither of those options sparked joy for me personally. I’ve always enjoyed the physical work of gardening, but the part I dreaded the most was leading team members who weren’t on the same page, filling in paperwork, workplace politics, and everything else that comes with being a supervisor or business owner. There were times I considered moving to a different sector because I wasn’t sure I could see a future in horticulture for somebody like me, unless I was willing to follow one of those two pathways, or stay on the tools, understanding I wouldn’t ever receive a significant pay increase. I know I’m not alone in feeling like this.

Statistics for the amenity horticulture sector are hard to find, but anecdotally I recognise that we’ve lost a lot of talent over the last few years to other industries, like construction, that are offering better renumeration. A lack of visible pathways within the industry isn’t the only problem; I’m convinced it’s a big part of the staff shortage puzzle.

Unfortunately, many of us see our careers in a linear fashion, where we start at the bottom and one day, if we try really hard, we’ll be the big boss. But that’s an antiquated view of career progression that needs to be balanced by modern ideals of a balanced lifestyle. John Fitzsimmons nailed this concept in his article “Negotiating the career lattice” in the November issue of Hort Journal 2023.  

Of course, it’s relatively easy to pivot into junior roles in a nursery, a landscape firm, natural resource management, arboriculture, and other horticulture-adjacent sectors. You can work your way up in each of these sectors through experience and gaining new qualifications, or you can stack a variety of skills from different sectors to become a completely unique candidate.

For qualified horticulturists working in a nursery or landscape maintenance setting, the pay is okay but it’s not great. Comparatively speaking, roles in landscape construction will

often pay significantly more. A horticulture qualification is highly attractive to some landscape employers because landscaping crews often lack plant knowledge. Having a plant person on the team can fill knowledge gaps, increase plant survival rates, and ultimately improve client satisfaction.

Alternatively, you can pivot into landscape architecture or design. The best designers will often have some experience working on the tools, whether that’s in a nursery, construction or maintenance role. Having a broad understanding of plants, and constructing landscapes and maintaining them gives you a different perspective to somebody who started working in a design capacity straight out of school.

There are occasionally jobs advertised for landscape designers, but most of the designers I know work for themselves. Becoming a landscape designer is certainly easier to achieve than becoming a landscape architect, which requires a bachelor’s degree and membership with the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA). However, the pay can be fantastic and you can find more job security than needing a steady source of clients as a sole-trader landscape designer.

My career these days can be hard to define. When people ask me what I do, I tend to say I’m in horticultural media or that I’m a horticultural consultant, both of which are true. I’ve carved out my own space in the industry by taking one step at a time, moving from a maintenance operator to a team leader, to a blogger, to a podcaster, to a National Council Member for the Australian Institute of Horticulture, to the “careers” column writer for the Journal, to working on a contract basis for companies leading the way in our industry.

If you’re feeling lost and still don’t know what you want to be when you “grow up,” the best advice I can give would be to have a series of long conversations with somebody you respect. That could be your spouse, your boss, a parent, or, even better, a mentor within the industry who has walked the path before you. Together, you can brainstorm how your experience and skill set can lead you to a role where you feel fulfilled.

Daniel Fuller

M: 042 6169 708



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