apprenticeshipsMy name is Franny Hornblow. I’m the Company Secretary of PR Motors, a small independent garage workshop that’s been operating in Tidmarsh (just outside of Reading, Berkshire) since 1990. In reality my role covers everything to do with the business that isn’t spanner related.

In this article I’m going to talk about training and apprenticeships.

My personal training background is an Economics degree from Cambridge in the 1980s followed by qualifying as a chartered accountant with what was then PW in London in 1991. I worked for BP for 15 years as an accountant in London and Cleveland, Ohio, before taking the quantum leap of joining PR Motors some 10 years ago now.  However, all technicians in our team started their careers by completing an apprenticeship. There really is no other viable route to being a vehicle technician (mechanic if you’re old school!)

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about each of our apprentices and how their experience has developed from both our perspective and theirs.

Apprentice Bobby

bobbySo, the first apprentice we had is Bobby. His road has been, long, tortuous at times, but eventually successful. Never has the saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’ been more valid!

This story begins in 2005. Bobby joined us straight from school aged 16 as a general assistant. He started his apprenticeship 2 years later in 2007 – attending Newbury College 1 day a week in term times and working with us for the other 4.

The first 2 years passed fairly smoothly (just the odd re-take here and there) and then he took a break for personal reasons. Bobby continued to work for us during this period and eventually decided that without a proper qualification his career had already flat-lined. He went back to college aged 22 in 2011 to complete his third year. This is where the road got rocky. …

Doing an academic qualification whilst working 4/4.5 days a week as well as having 2 small children at home is a challenge not to be taken lightly. Added to this, if the apprentice doesn’t have a B at GCSE in Maths, English and ICT, he is required to undertake ‘functional skills’ exams to bring him to that standard.

There are online examples and tests the apprentice can do at home, but Bobby didn’t own a pc and wasn’t very adept at using one anyway. We encouraged him to stay late a few evenings a week and complete these tests from the workshop. This had the added benefit of not being interrupted by his children!

Also, I worked with Newbury College to set Bobby past papers, mark them and go through them with him. In all honesty Bobby enjoyed the learning, his confidence grew almost overnight and he was soon scoring highly on the mocks. An exam environment, however, proved rather more demanding and Bobby had several attempts at the functional skills before passing them.

In recognition of all this work and balancing act Bobby was delighted to win ‘best apprentice in a small business’ at an award ceremony at Newbury College in March 2014. He remarked at the time ‘I’ve never won anything in my life!’

He still had his technical exams to pass, which he finally did in the summer of 2014. Some 9 years after starting his apprenticeship. I wasn’t joking with the ‘if at first you don’t succeed’ comment, was I?

The outcomes of all this are:

  1. Bobby was able to become an MOT tester – a long held ambition of his and he has that role with us today. He has a transferable, recognised qualification which can command a commensurate salary.
  2. PR Motors has an extremely loyal employee who adds significant value to our business every day.
  3. We have both learned and grown together

Apprentice Simon

simonBobby was followed by Simon. Paul and I have known Simon well, socially, since he was 1; in fact our children went to school with him and his brother.

Simon went to the Downs in Compton, achieved fairly good ASs and progressed to upper sixth. He was on a Uni visit with his Mum when he decided that Uni absolutely wasn’t for him and indeed that school wasn’t up to much either. He left school that Christmas with no future plans at all.

I’m not sure how many of you are parents, but believe me, that’s not a great situation for your 17 year old. By way of making sure Simon actually got out of bed on January 2nd (2012), we offered him the general assistant role, luring him with the fact that the worst possible outcome for him was that he’d be able to top up the engine oil in his own car at least!

The saying relevant at this point is ‘he took to it like a duck to water’! He became focused and enjoyed the manual work. Simon has always been polite and a ‘nice’ character and he began to shine.

At his appraisal that March, we offered him an apprenticeship which he, at first, flatly refused, assuming it meant a full-time classroom again. When we explained it was only 1 day at college a week during term times and pointed out the benefits of the qualification he accepted.

Simon got a fair few distinctions and merits in his exams and qualified in the summer of 2015, when we promoted him to junior technician. We have also sent him on various external courses, run by, amongst others, Bosch and JLR. He is now one of our qualified first aiders and has just completed the 3 day MOT tester course. A real success story when you remember that 4 years ago he had no motivation to do anything much and didn’t really care about it.

After all that, the others are going to seem rather lame stories I’m afraid!

Apprentice James

jamesFollowing Simon was James. James is also local – he lives with his parents in Bradfield and started with us as a Saturday boy in April 2012 – he’s about to finish his third and final apprenticeship year now.

As the apprentices climbed the ladder we recognised the need to keep the bottom rung full. We always need someone who can learn the basics such as tyre changing, wiper blade and bulb renewals. Using part qualified staff for these jobs is demotivating for them and uneconomic for us.

Apprentice Jason

jasonAs James moved upwards we needed a first year. Jason is another friend of our children’s and one who had always stood out in the crowd. He had left school after GCSEs and gone to Reading College to start on a public services course, which he wasn’t enjoying too much. Our team is small and it is obviously incredibly important that each member fits in. We thought Jason would, so approached him and offered him the first year role. He accepted and the rest as they say is history.

Now in his second year, Jason is a delight to have on our team. He’s focussed, engaged and engaging. He also has a black belt in Taekwon-Do and regularly fights for England around the world. He’s here with us tonight.

Apprentice Reece

Last year we recruited Reece, who has a different back story to our other apprentices. He had also left school after GCSE, but knew he wanted to be a motor vehicle technician and enrolled on a full time motor vehicle course at Reading College. He’d completed one year on that course when he joined us and moved onto the apprenticeship program.

The switch is easy and of course Reece started work with us with a basic knowledge and understanding of mechanics. He has nearly completed his first year, with many distinctions, and is more than competent to move to the second in September.

Apprenticeship Program

You can see that we have now moved to effectively running an apprenticeship program with one person in each of the first, second and third years.

There are huge benefits to us in running this program. We have ‘home grown’ talent coming up through the company who have been taught our methods and systems. Apprentices are economic after a few months (the starting apprentice minimum wage is £3.30/hr) and by the time they reach the third year they can do simple tasks unsupervised and the business benefits greatly from them.

We also aim to develop our apprentices in other ways. For example, we present to the general studies group of the U6 at Pangbourne College on basic car maintenance and we involve the apprentices in this. They learn public speaking and leadership by doing this in a fairly non-demanding way. We also encourage them to speak out at team meetings especially on health and safety issues and some technical areas where they are taught the current thinking and they may in turn teach the rest of us a thing or 2!

We have a few controls in place to ensure the smooth running of the program:

Firstly, we hold a weekly meeting with senior managers and the apprentices to keep on top of things. We have found that progress can slip fairly dramatically and quickly if targets are missed. The apprentices are required by the College to do specified jobs in the workplace that need to be documented. They are also observed in the workplace by a member of the College staff every so often. We feel it important to keep abreast of these tasks and the meetings keep the momentum going.

Secondly, we also feel it important to maintain a good working relationship with the College. I’ve met with the apprentice coordinator and the head of the department and had a tour of the workshops at the College. The College is keen to adopt a 3 way dialogue as well – it keeps everyone on the same page and prevents the risk of an apprentice saying something that’s not quite right to us and vice versa!

It may be for these reasons that we were honoured to win the ‘most supportive employer’ award at a ceremony at Reading College in 2014.

Thirdly, although the people I’ve spoken about here are all good news stories, not everyone has worked out well and we’ve had to let 3 others go for various reasons. If we can see someone hasn’t really got the right attitude or skills to finish the apprenticeship we will be candid and discuss it with them. The motor vehicle trade is not for the faint hearted and often a different choice of career will benefit all involved.

The downsides? Not many, to be honest. There is a bit more admin involved in employing an apprentice than with other staff, but it’s not too time consuming or onerous. Secondly, and fairly obviously, the apprenticeship program should not be the only recruitment tool in my opinion.

I feel a small company like ours benefits enormously from recruiting from a blue chip every now and then. This keeps our thinking and our systems up to date and brings not only fresh blood but fresh ideas and energy as well. Of our current staff 3 have come from large companies, 3 from other small ones, 7 are home grown and we are currently recruiting another senior tech from a main agent.

From the apprentices point of view the only downside compared to a Uni experience is the lack of a massive in built circle of friends and the social whirl that brings. But you can’t have everything, and if their behaviour at our team socials is anything to go by our apprentices definitely manage to party hard as well!

To conclude, our apprentices have come from a variety of backgrounds and all of them would recommend the program. It gives commercial experience, a recognised qualification and 3 years of earnings. Hard to beat if Uni’s not for you.