TurfPro editor, Laurence Gale writes:
One of the biggest challenges our industry faces in the coming years will be inspiring the next generation of turf professionals to join our sector. We desperately need to start finding ways to encourage more people to come and work in this diverse, international industry.
To help start this process, I have asked a number of our leading professionals to write a piece about how they came to work in this industry and the opportunities it has given them.
Mary Worrall - senior manager Wirral’s Parks, Coast and Countryside services
Tell us about yourself?
I work for Wirral Council where I am the Senior Manager responsible for Wirral’s Parks, Coast and Countryside services. Wirral has over 240 fantastic parks of all types, including the world-famous Birkenhead Park which is one of a very few grade one historic public parks in the country. The Wirral is very fortunate to have such a great range of parks and countryside sites and so many Friends Groups local volunteers and staff who care passionately about their local environment.
Before working here, I worked in London both for English Heritage, where I was the National Training and Development Manager for five years and then at the London Borough of Hillingdon, which was the first time I had worked for a local authority, I started at Hillingdon in 2002 as Green Spaces Service Manager, when Hillingdon had the second joint lowest level of resident satisfaction related to parks and open spaces and no Green flag awarded sites, together we turned this around.
Before I moved to London, I worked at the Woodland Trust for ten years, where amongst other things I developed the Trust’s early community woodlands programme, and I started my career as one of the Urban Field Officers for the Conservation Volunteers in Dudley.
Who or what inspired you to take up your career?
Although I did quite well at school, I really had had enough of sitting indoors by the time I was 16 and I was fortunate to come across the ‘working holidays’ run by the Conservation Volunteers. I booked onto one to learn how to dry stone wall at Rivington Terraced Gardens and enjoyed learning how to do practical tasks and work as part of a team. Doing conservation tasks in the North west and across the country in my school holidays was a good antidote to school. As a family we had been youth hostelling and I’d sometimes wondered who’d made the bridges we walked over on coastal footpaths, now I know and found out that that people had paid jobs doing outdoor practical conservation work, that was when I realised it might be worth exploring!
Between school and university I took a year out and did more conservation tasks, some voluntary ranger work with the RSPB and a YOP (Youth opportunity programme) bricklaying course at a local college – I was the only female, it was rather different from the conservation tasks but useful too. After I left University with a BSc in Environmental Biology, I got my first paid job.
Which individuals have inspired you or helped you develop professionally?
Paul Todd from the Green Flag Award is very inspiring, he has a quiet calm and passionate approach which he always applies when championing the importance of parks, this is quite a rare combination of skills.
Philomena Bach, helped me develop professionally a great deal while I was at Hillingdon, I still use her wise words.
John James was the Chief Executive when I started work at the Woodland Trust, he had helped ‘grow’ the organisation from his home office in Nottinghamshire, working to the board of Trustees who were mainly in Devon. When I joined the Trust had about 200 woods and a small office in Grantham, ten years later it had around 1000. John’s determination and high standards helped the Trust become a well established national organisation and it is to his credit, and everyone else who has worked there, that the Trust is a well-known organisation today.
What three pieces of machinery or innovations have in your opinion helped drive our industry forward or helped make your job easier?
HAVs monitors we use at work are really important. With over 60 square miles and 240 plus sites they are a great help for safe working. We are also piloting use of electric strimmers and other items too to help keep HAVS points low and also in support of the low carbon economy and our Trimax mowers have proven themselves a great help recently.
What concerns do you have for the future of our industry?
The significant financial pressures being placed on Local Authorities are a big concern. As many people have said, it is such a sad irony that the Covid pandemic means more people than ever are reliant on access to good quality parks and open spaces for their health and wellbeing and yet these places are at risk.
The age profile of parks staff working on the Wirral is mainly people in their 40s and 50s, and so we are introducing a careers pathway programme in our current restructure to help people join the industry in entry level positions and progress through different roles.
How do you think we can entice the next generation of industry professionals to come and work in this industry?
It is important to see people as individuals and to listen to people’s interests to find roles that work well for people, in addition to promoting the sector as a great place to work and develop. As an example of how not to do it : when I was doing my A levels, I had a careers meeting at school, the Careers teacher looked at the A levels I was studying which were Maths, Physics and Chemistry, he then pointed to a poster on the classroom wall that said ‘Engineering needs a Woman’s touch’ and told me – ‘that’s what you should be doing’. He was not interested that I was spending all my time learning practical skills like drystone walling, hedgelaying, fence construction, coppicing, tree planting, path construction, pond construction etc. Practical skills make the world a better place but are sadly under rated in so many ways, this needs challenging!
How have recent events impacted on your job and how would you like to see the government support our industry?
I have been working at home since the last week in March of 2020. It has been really challenging to manage and support our team of 190 staff and I would like to take this opportunity to say what a fantastic job everyone in Wirral’s parks and countryside team has done. People have adapted quickly to new safe working methods, have kept parks open, have provided respectful burials and cremations in the very difficult circumstances, swiftly responded to the needs to open or close parks facilities such as playgrounds, tennis courts and football and bowls pavilions as guidance and legislation changes, often overnight. People have volunteered to work in the Wirral Covid PPE hub, and we have picked up so much rubbish it beggars belief.
In answer to your final question: I am sure government understands the importance of parks and that support is essential both for the health and wellbeing of local people across the country and support for young people who are able to enter the industry through apprenticeships, which is crucial.