Simon Newton is the Commercial Director of Electrical Contracting business, Darke & Taylor. We chatted to Simon about how they recruit and train apprentices and the benefits Apprenticeships have brought the business. Photo: Darke & Taylor at the Electrical Industry Awards where they won Apprentice of the Year.

Tell us about your business.

Darke & Taylor was founded in 1958 and started as a sole trader business.

By 1971 it was a limited company with 50 employees, and there were already a handful of apprentices amongst these. Today the business has a turnover of £14 million and over 160 employees.

We’ve always recruited apprentices. Nowadays we offer formal Apprenticeships to around 6 to 12 people a year who want to learn a trade.

How does your business find the process of working with a training provider?

Rather than deliver all of the training in house, we use a third party training provider, in our case JTL. They provide a lot of assistance in recruitment activities and manage the off-site training at nearby colleges, while we provide the ‘on the job’ learning.

We’ve worked with JTL for years so we have a long established relationship. They really understand the world of electrical contractors.

How does the recruitment process work?

The biggest difficulty for us is finding the right people. We recruit school leavers at post GCSEs or A levels for a Level 3 Apprenticeship, which can take between 4-5 years, so we’re looking for long term commitment.

It all starts with the application form. There are no set academic requirements for an Advanced Apprenticeship, as they aren’t just based on academic achievement but to be eligible to start the Apprenticeship, candidates must pass the JTL Entry Assessment, and not be in full-time education at the point of starting the Apprenticeship. As a good indication of suitability, we expect candidates to have or be predicted to achieve four GCSE’s or equivalent at grade C or better, in subjects including Maths, English and Science. Beyond that, we’re interested in finding out about any responsibility they’ve had, as they will potentially be running a team at some stage, and it’s useful to find out what they enjoy and what their interests are.

JTL are very good at bringing potential candidates to us but we also go to a lot of school career fairs to meet budding apprentices. We pass applications to JTL and they do the first stage of sifting for us through their “Entry Assessment” which tests candidates on literacy, numeracy, aptitude, learning style and ICT. They even check for colour blindness, which is important as electricians work with color-coded wires and face electrocution if they are unable to distinguish different coloured cables. Following that, JTL have a telephone conversation with the applicant prior to approving them.

Once people have got through that stage they come along for an interview in our offices. The people who interview our apprentices were Darke & Taylor apprentices themselves, so they’ve learnt the trade and are now office managers. They tend to start off with a very basic conversation and then go on to ask candidates questions that help us understand their aptitude for the role.

We often ask them to bring along something they’ve made, or ask them to identify an electrical tool. We’re trying to find out if they’ve got a problem solving mind and whether they’ve got a practical outlook on life.

We might present a problem like, ‘you’ve got to get to London for 7.30 in the morning, how are you going to get there?’ That can be quite a shock for some of them. Some will say they’ll get their mum to take them, others say they’d take their moped, or catch the bus. It’s quite an interesting question to find out how they’d tackle it, and it also lets them know that we’ll be expecting them to start early in the morning. Once they start we’re actually pretty supportive in helping our apprentices get to site on time by providing transport in crew buses and local pick up points.

 By the time they start their Apprenticeship are they fully employed by you?

Yes, that’s right.

We’re lucky in our industry to have the Joint Industry Board (JIB), an impartial organisation that sets the standards for employment, welfare, grading and apprentice training in the electrical contracting industry. Its partners include Unite (the Union) and the Electrical Contractors Association, so we have pre-agreed terms and conditions of employment and rates of pay for all apprentices. It provides a fantastic structure on which to base our offering.

What it enables us to do is give someone a full time employment contract that guarantees them four years’ employment during that training period and we can tell them what rate of pay they’ll be on as long as they pass each year of their Apprenticeship.

It also provides them access to the company pension at 18 and private healthcare benefits, and, because they’re paid hourly, it provides them with additional sick pay cover. It’s a well-negotiated contract with above minimum wage rates of pay, which makes it quite an attractive option for apprentices.

The support from JIB is really useful as it provides a point of mediation between employers and employees, provides industry standards for Apprenticeships, and also offers ongoing career progression by providing four additional career grading scales for electricians once they’re past Apprenticeship stage.

It’s really useful for small businesses (in fact we’re one of the larger employers involved) as it takes away the need for full time HR employees or consultants.

How do you think recruiting apprentices compares to recruiting interns or graduates?

We don’t have any interns, but there are a few graduates here in non-electrical roles, in fact I’m one of them. In terms of service delivery, we specifically want people who have hands-on experience so time-served electrical apprentices are essential.

Graduates can be good theoretically – they can write prequalification documents and other commercial documents for example, but in getting things done on site graduates don’t have the experience we need to overcome the technical problems required to deliver our core service.

How do you help your apprentices settle into the business?

The first thing they do is come for an induction day. It can be quite daunting for them as we introduce them to the directors and the project managers on their first day. Then we get very quickly into health and safety training, so we can make sure we can send them into the workplace safely. They go through a health and safety test and are shown a number of construction health and safety videos. We’ll also issue them with their steel toe cap boots and hard hats, etc.

Then on day two they go to their first building site, so in that respect they’re very much in at the deep end. We found though that it’s good to get them quickly engaged. As our staff are all directly employed and the majority have come through an Apprenticeship scheme, they’ll act as mentors to the new starters; they really take them under their wing.

In the early stages it’s true that apprentices are running a lot of errands and probably making tea as well but it’s all part of being on a site and it gets them familiar with the environment. But we do try to get them quickly engaged in basic electrical tasks such as pulling in cables, second fixing sockets and light fittings using drills etc. so that they can develop their practical skills. Long gone are the days where there were tough initiations for apprentices and hazards on site. These days it’s a much more professional environment and health and safety is paramount.

Once they’re underway, they do week block releases in college.

How far can apprentices progress in your business?

Well our MD, Paul McNaughton started at Darke and Taylor at 16 as an apprentice!

Our Estimating and Design Director, who’s been with the business 26 years, was also a Darke & Taylor apprentice, and two of our Senior Project Managers are ex-apprentices too, it just goes on and on really.

Over 50% of our senior management were Darke and Taylor apprentices, and as the company has typically grown on average 10 to 15% a year, there are massive opportunities for apprentices coming through the ranks.

In the short term it’s pretty good too. Apprentices go from earning £4.78 per hour in their first year to £10.40 by their fourth year, and they’ll have a Level 3 NVQ City & Guilds qualification in Electrotechnical Technology. From there the pay rates for our trained Electricians can be as much as £35k per annum, that’s without us asking them if they want to progress even further.

We try to bring people through in roles that would work best for them, some are natural project managers, others are good at managing a team and end up as site foremen; people work to their strengths.

What are the challenges around recruiting apprentices?

The apprentices are joining us at 16 to 18, and at that age there can be a few distractions, so I guess the biggest issues we face are around lateness and absence issues both on site and at college. Most people in this trade will be getting up between 5am and 6am every morning, and that can be a challenge. We try to be quite firm on those issues.

For some it’s just too hard so we probably lose one apprentice in the first year. We usually take on eight apprentices in a year, so that retention rate is still pretty good.

For us it’s about getting the message across that it’s as useful to do an Apprenticeship as to go to university. The schools push young people towards A levels but a skills based training course can be best for your career long-term. We do find some bright cookies, but how many are we missing that are going down the academic route?

The message needs to come from everywhere. We do a lot to try and spread that message, which is why I’m really keen to do my bit as an Apprenticeships Ambassador and give support through things like Apprenticemakers. Two of our current apprentices have joined the Oxfordshire Apprenticeships Ambassadors scheme and another recently qualified female electrician is a JTL Apprentice Ambassador.

What have been the costs to your business?

The cost to our business is huge, we’ve probably got 40 people going through an Apprenticeship at any one time, but the benefits are huge too.

Everything we do is about labour efficiency so we have found this the best way to develop home grown talent and get return on investment as quickly as possible.

Our business model is one of organic growth based on direct employment of a workforce who are competent in doing their job so the return on investment definitely outweighs the costs.

What challenges do you think are facing smaller businesses recruiting apprentices?

We’re lucky that we take on a few apprentices a year, so we can support people in the roles that might suit them most and afford for the occasional apprentice to leave, but I can see that if you’re taking on your first apprentice all your eggs are in that basket. If it doesn’t work out then you have a bit of a problem.  We’re a big enough business that we can afford the non-productive elements I suppose.

On the plus side, for the first couple of years they are an extremely cheap resource, and as long as you can bring them up through the ranks properly they will become valuable to your business.

Every electrician needs another person at the other end of the cable, at the bottom of the steps and so on, and definitely the most expensive way to do that is to have two electricians, as one of those won’t be acting as an electrician, they’ll be acting as a mate. So we have found it far more cost effective if that person is an apprentice.

The issue we have in the industry is that if businesses don’t invest in training it can create a skills shortage and push up rates for the whole industry. It can be frustrating if you’re the business that has put the effort into training them and they go off to a job elsewhere, but then it comes down to your ability to retain your staff too.

What do you see as being the main benefits to your business?

We have a workforce that has been with us from the early stages of their careers so we understand their strengths and weaknesses, and they do too. We’re continually developing people, and so every time someone moves up to a new role, there’s always someone waiting in the wings. It really has massive benefits in terms of succession.

Having apprentices has helped us win awards as well. That’s been great from a PR point of view and it really gets across the whole human element of our business. Our business won ‘Medium Sized Contractor of the Year’, awarded by the Electrical Contractors’ Association, and the ‘NatWest Large Business Award’ at the Oxfordshire Business Awards. With both, our commitment to the local community and Apprenticeships were certainly a contributing factor in our selection. There have also been awards for our apprentices. Simon Hitchcox recently won Electrical Apprentice of the Year 2014 at Swindon College, and Tom Webb and Phoebe Stockford were finalists for Electrical Apprentice of the Year at the Electrical Industry Awards 2014 (with Phoebe being “highly commended” and Tom becoming the overall winner).

In terms of commercial benefits, it can be a unique selling point when we’re pitching for work. Our clients really like the fact that we use apprentices, particularly certain contractors as it helps them pitch for work. By naming us in the tender process it can help them reach the Apprenticeship quotas sometimes required in public sector work. Our industry is very price sensitive but when it comes to the ‘value add’, our commitment to Apprenticeships can be a deciding factor.

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