Delivering training and qualifications as an employer

By Calvin Challis V&D Interiors

Today the biggest challenge our industry and sector faces is not having enough trained skilled and qualified employees to one day replace our ageing workforce. The lack of opportunities and few efforts to inspire has made it tough to entice the younger generation into a career in drylining plastering and all the other occupations within the fit out sector.

Creating these opportunities for the next generation and tackling this issue has been a topic heavily discussed in our workplace, on site and in the office, and something, as an employer, we wanted to be a part of a solution for. We were quick to understand that providing apprenticeships would be the best way for new employees to learn the trade. However, meeting their required study time and including this in their working week proved our biggest challenge.

To provide an apprenticeship, apprentices must complete at least 20% off the job training or study time as part of their working week (from 1 August 2022 this has become 6 hours per week off the job training). This element is usually achieved through completing a specific college course. However, in our research, we were shocked to discover that no college in travel distance of our business offered a drylining course and that there were very few that offered a plastering one despite both being major contributors to the construction process. Instead, colleges local to us offer courses in other trades such as bricklaying, electrical installation, carpentry and painting and decorating, which are all useful but not specific enough for our needs.

As a local business in Telford our main aim, along with inspiring the next generation, is to give back to our local community. However, we knew in order to achieve this, and ultimately without colleges offering these courses, we had to think outside of the box and become pioneers in the field. This is when we decided to open our very own training academy.

V&D Interiors training academy provides trainees with the necessary training and assessments in-house to achieve recognised vocational qualifications in Dry Lining or Plastering. Trainees will also benefit from a higher wage than a traditional apprentice whilst also building a career in an established company that has over 10 years of experience. This is a route we believe benefits both parties and provides us, as a business, with the opportunity to employ and train the next generation which in turn will help towards closing the gap of an ageing workforce. It will also allow us to tailor a specific training program to our organisations trade requirements which we hope will produce a skilled workforce that is equipped, flexible and prepared for the challenges of today’s fit out sector.

Along with the benefits for V&D Interiors, the individuals and the community, our training academy has allowed us to solve some secondary problems within plastering and drylining such as a disengaged workforce, a poor understanding of health and safety and a lack of knowledge and understanding about the importance of building systems to specification and in accordance with manufacturers instructions. These specific areas will be added to the curriculum, so trainees have an understanding and will be able to work to tackle issues, within their area of responsibility, arising on site.

The process of starting a training academy was daunting especially as it is something no other organisation around us is offering. We wanted to move fast on this idea and not lose momentum so agreed to get the facility up and running within two months. During this time, we had to organise everything from building and kitting out the training academy to finding our trainees and setting them up with a qualified mentor, providing them with tools and transport and producing a progressive training program linked to our current contracts all whilst managing our day-to-day business.

What felt like a stressful couple of months was made worthwhile on the opening day when we welcomed our first cohort of trainees. Our first intake consisted of two plasterers and five fixers. It was great to see our idea taking shape and to see how excited and enthusiastic everyone was about the academy.

Throughout the whole process, it became very clear that what we were going to offer would be a great opportunity for the younger generation who have come up against many issues in their attempts to join the construction industry or even find other work. Issues such as mistreatment, zero-hour contracts, a lack of access to recognised qualifications and indifference to training program rules.

A example is one of our trainees who was completing their second year of a three-year apprenticeship in another trade decided to leave the role after the employer was not providing or willing to give the mandatory four days a week onsite work experience. This led to the apprentice not reaching their potential and left the individual out of pocket.

Two other challenges V&D Interiors faced during the process was finding enough coaches and mentors that were willing to take on and look after the trainees on site and also the high start-up costs which were needed both when setting up the training academy and to keep it going. But the benefits we could see for us, the individuals and the local community outweighed these difficulties, and we were determined to work through the challenges. Some challenges were more easily to overcome than others and we were delighted at how easy it was to find high calibre trainees who are motivated, enthusiastic and show a great attitude towards our industry. We have found the Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS) was a great source of knowledge in assisting us in this endeavour and we have also received great assistance from our supply chain, customers, and partners.

Since taking on the first cohort of trainees, we have welcomed a second set of seven trainees and after having received great feedback from everyone involved, including trainees who have recommended their friends and family members to apply for positions, we have put plans in place to take a further eight trainees every three months going forward.

The entire process has provided us with many valuable lessons and has allowed us to begin closing our own organisations ageing workforce gap, upskill the existing workforce, create a succession plan for V&D Interiors whilst also offering great opportunities to people within our community that otherwise may have struggled to find a satisfying career. As a company, we will continue to stand by the importance of bringing the next generation into the fit out sector and we urge employers to prioritise training and qualifications to prevent the skill gap worsening to the point causing the collapse of organisations.

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