New Zealand tree doctors take root in Southeast Asia - 10th Feb 2012

New Zealand tree doctors take root in Southeast Asia
From New January 16, 2012

Few nations can boast of effective use of green space and national parks in its city centre, but Singapore is one of them. And when it comes to maximising limited space into world class outdoor parks, Singapore's Centre for Urban Greenery (CUGE) are the experts.

CUGE, jointly established by the National Parks Board and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, are now using New Zealand company, Thoughtplanters to develop staff skills and qualifications in areas such as the cultivation and management of trees, otherwise known as arboriculture.

"Thoughtplanters' trainers are specialists in their particular subject field, and we had a shortage of such specialists for training in Singapore," says P Teva Raj, director of CUGE.

The company has been instrumental in building educational frameworks for staff across the park and helping educate industry professionals, such as during a productivity study visit to New Zealand last year by industry stakeholders.

They are professional and have a great track record," he says.

"They were willing to come in and help us get our programmes going and were committed to our concept of transferring knowledge and expertise to Singaporeans. They helped to build up a pool of local trainers."

The company's modus operandi of providing highly skilled in-house training is relatively new in Southeast Asia, despite its prevalence in other parts of the world through polytechnic courses and apprenticeships. This is due to the relatively low cost of hiring unskilled, transient workers in Asia.

However Thoughtplanters director, Richard Wanhill, said this culture is changing in conjunction with the realisation that quality can also be a cost-saver due to higher productivity.

"Our challenge is to show the decision-makers that there is another way," he says.

Through horticultural and arboriculture skills training and refresher courses, as well as management and leadership training by experienced staff, the company gives long-term benefits to local workers and their employers.

"There are plenty of people with a high level of theoretical knowledge but less with hands-on experience. We train people using people who work in the industry," says Mr Wanhill.

The Thoughtplanters directors have done the hard yards in the field - between the five of them, they have around 100 years experience. While experience and training makes all the difference in quality for the trees, it is also a cost effective.

"With pruning, a tree might be visited twice a year. If was done properly by trained staff, it might only need to be done once every two years. It's spending money to save money," says Mr Wanhill.

One of the challenges is convincing local companies that have access to cheap labour that it is worth the investment, says Mr Wanhill.

"A trained worker can be seven times more productive and the end result is better quality; and an educated staff member is also more likely to stay. That worker is then going to take more care and understand the needs of the tree better.

"As workers' safety becomes increasingly important, there is also the need for proper training of staff. Asia has a much higher rate of incidents than in New Zealand because many staff are not as widely trained on how to work safely in trees."

The company plans to continue to grow through Asia, building networks and delivering a quality service.

"The big push is with hotels. They realise the importance of a long term need to have quality grounds, with healthy trees, and trained staff to care for them."

Working through Singapore parks has also been an important step for the company.

"Singapore has a massive amount of influence in the region. Developing nations look to success stories in the region and Singapore is one of them."

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