Mark Townsend is the Managing Director of Derry Building Services, a business originally established 1734, which has gone through many incarnations in its two centuries of trading. Since the late 1980s, the building services contractor has been part of the Bowmer and Kirkland Group, and the company has a long-standing history as an apprentice employer. Mark, who works from Derry Building Services’ Newark headquarters, began his own career as an electrician’s apprentice. This, in part, informed his decision to perform a double Apprentice Ambassador role. He takes the title for both the East Midlands, and for the Skills and Employment Commission for Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire (the D2N2). We caught up with Mark to talk about how apprentices fit in to Derry Building Services’ day-to-day work and plans for the future. He says:
“I joined this company over 25 years ago and we’ve taken on apprentices as long as I can remember. Most often, they’re electrical and heating and ventilation apprentices. We’ll be taking on ten this year and we usually take on between six and 12 every year, depending on our requirements.”
Having worked for years with apprentices, Mark has a good overview of how they represent a life-changing opportunity for talented, driven people whose skills are best applied outside an academic setting:
“I’m passionate about apprenticeships because I believe in young people and I think they should be given good, solid opportunities. Not everyone is suited to university, some people flourish in work. Those people need the chance to do well at work and learn at the same time.”
Derry Building Services’ overall ethos as an employer is about investing in every employee’s continual professional development. Once someone has reached the end of their four-year apprenticeship programme, the business continues to invest in them. As Mark explains, an apprenticeship is just the beginning of a career.
“Apprentices might go on to become electricians, plumbers or fitters. Or, if they show promise during their four-year apprenticeship, we’ll send them back to college to do their HNCs and HNDs. Then they’ll come into the office and become our Design Engineers and Project Managers. This is how we grow our business organically from within. As well as creating skilled electricians, plumbers and fitters, apprenticeships provide a pool of talent for our future office staff.”
Someone who has done an apprenticeship in one area of the business can bring an excellent level of understanding to future roles. Mark says:
“The beauty of apprenticeships is that they give individuals invaluable practical, on-the-job experience. Our apprentices learn how installations are completed on site so, if they do progress into the office then they understand the real world implications because they’ve actually installed it.”
Given that the staff are so well trained, do Mark and his management team have concerns about staff retention?
“We look after our staff and our retention is around 90%. We lose some to sub-contracting but the benefits of what we get from apprenticeships far outweigh that loss. Plus, I believe we’re putting something back into the industry; we’re feeding the sector as well as looking after our own business.”
Derry Building Services is a well-established enterprise with a turnover in excess of £50 million and over 220 employees. Does Mark think apprenticeships are as viable for smaller businesses and start-ups?
“Yes! When you first take an apprentice on they need a lot of input during their first year, but then in subsequent years you’re getting good value for money from that apprentice, while they are getting good value in terms of learning a trade. If you’re looking to expand it’s one way to do that while knowing that the person you’re training is going to work in the way you want them to. That’s key, I think particularly to small businesses.”
Mark and his team understand the importance of creating a solid structure around their apprentices, most of whom join the company when they’re only 16 or 17. They do this is a number of ways, from sticking rigorously to learning plans and engaging with parents / guardians, to running awards schemes to recognise those young people who’ve excelled in their apprenticeships. The company even goes as far as to invite parents in to get an overview of the programme their children are about to embark upon, as Mark explains:
“The way we integrate our apprentices is important. When they start we do an induction day with the parents. They come in, sit down and we talk about what they can expect for the next four years. It’s about getting everyone involved, engaging parents and beginning as we mean to go on. The annual apprenticeships awards are conducted internally for each year group. They highlight the ‘best’ apprentice for each year group based on their college grades, as well as feedback from their foreman or site manager.”
Asked what it is that inspires Mark to take his advocacy of apprenticeships further, as an ambassador for the model as well as an employer, his answer is simple and direct:
“I believe in apprenticeships. It’s how I got started, as did one of the other directors here. Someone gave me an opportunity many years ago and I want to make sure other young people get the same chance.”