Short term cost or long term benefit?

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Since hundreds of thousands of skilled and unskilled workers were lost from the construction industry in the recession of the early to mid-nineties, only the most progressive companies have continued to make a significant investment in their workforce. Mike Henshaw of Omega Red Group investigates.
Unfortunately, too many organisations are content to poach well-trained staff from better-run organisations. Whilst this may be of short-term benefit to the organisation in question it simultaneously undermines attempts to boost skills, expertise and levels of professionalism across the industry as a whole.
The earthing and lightning protection sector, largely as a result of the actions of a few leading organisations, has however, grasped the need to promote best practice – the vehicle for this is the Lightning Conductor Engineering Apprenticeship scheme run by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). The apprenticeship, takes a minimum of 2 years to reach NVQ level 2 and has been running since the early 1990’s. Each year the scheme brings a greater number of properly qualified lightning protection and earthing engineers into the industry.
Omega has been one of the advocates of the apprenticeship course as we believe it is essential to ensure well-trained and skilled people are available to design, build and maintain high-quality earthing and lightning protection systems across the country. The apprenticeship scheme, ensures the knowledge vital to the industry in 21st century is being properly taught and understood.
Of course, it is important to spend time recruiting the right type of person to fit the role. We generate interest in our apprenticeship scheme by advertising in local newspapers, posting information on our website, using the CITB network and through contacts from our current workforce.
Potentially suitable applicants are interviewed for their ability to meet our training requirements and the needs of the job and also to assess whether they will fit within our organisation. The latter point is particularly important for long-term retention but is one that is often overlooked by employers. Candidates who successfully negotiate the initial stage go on to take the CITB assessments at the National Construction College (NCC) at Bircham Newton near Kings Lynn. Those who pass the rigorous interviews and assessments are offered places on the apprenticeship programme based on the needs of the business.
A structured training plan to meet the needs of the business is essential
Generally, apprentices are recruited in early autumn so they can gain some experience of life in the industry before they start their training at the NCC.
The apprenticeship’s academic and off-the-job practical training usually starts in January and comprises a total of 24 weeks residential training at the NCC over a 2-year period. Off-the-job training covers all technical and practical aspects of the trade.
The off-the-job training is augmented by on-the-job training during which apprentices are skilled in a wide range of disciplines such as health & safety, safe accessing, earthing and lightning protection design. The apprentice must successfully complete each module needed for the completion of their individual NVQ portfolios and eventual achievement of their apprenticeship.
The approximate direct cost to the company of employing an apprentice is in the order of £20,000. Some of this is offset by the contribution the apprentice makes to various projects whilst gaining on-the-job experience. Considering the costs of recruiting and training over the two-year period, it is vital to ensure appropriate retention policies are in place. That means regular meetings with apprentices, visiting them at their college and working closely with training board staff, designed to provide individuals with support, guidance and encouragement.
Having made the investment in time and money it is important to continue to offer the kind of positive career development and appropriate rewards that will ensure the long-term commitment of the individual. Most people are not motivated purely by salary but recognise and value the investment an organisation makes in them. Our approach led to 90% retention rate through to the end of the apprenticeship and 12 years after the completion of the first Lightning Conductor Engineering apprenticeship course, we still have an overall retention of around 60% of all apprentices ever employed.
As with any business asset, success can be measured based upon the return on investment. This is a vital concept. Companies should not recruit apprentices simply because it’s ‘the current thing to do’ but in order to resource the business’s current and future growth.
The real success of an apprentice scheme, for my organisation, is in ensuring it fulfils the needs of our customers in a safe, professional, efficient and cost effective manner. It follows that if the company is able to achieve this aim then it benefits from a more loyal customer base, reduced long-term recruitment costs, lower churn and the development of a more effective workforce.
The construction industry, sadly, has a reputation for harbouring many unprofessional operators. Properly recruited and trained apprentices developing into competent trades people will go some way to achieving a reputation for trust and professionalism.
Without investment in apprentices customers and the industry will suffer from a lack of competent, safe trades people and ultimately that will mean lower long-term turnover and profitability.
In answer to the question ‘are apprentices a short term cost or long term benefit’? Whilst apprentices involve a short term cost, without them the industry will never achieve the respect, and profitability it needs