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O'Halloran & O'Brien case study

Building the future: O'Halloran and O'Brien

O’Halloran and O’Brien wants to use its apprenticeship programme to show the breadth of great careers the construction industry can offer

South-east England-based construction company, O’Halloran and O’Brien (OHOB), has always valued apprenticeships but is using the evolving apprenticeship landscape and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy to usher in a bright new era of training at the organisation.

The company was incorporated in 1972 and has grown exponentially since then. It employs around 2,500 operatives and works on projects valued from £500,000 up to £40 million. A large part of its reputation has been built on repeat business, which relies on building a strong, long-term partnership with clients and high-quality staff who understand the values of the business.

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OHOB has always been committed to training but in the light of industry skills shortages, competition for talent from other sectors, as well as other potential threats to its organic talent pipeline such as Brexit, the company’s Workforce Development Director, Martyn Price MBE, has been conducting a strategic analysis of future skills.

Currently, there are around six employees on a range of apprenticeship programmes from finance to technical trades, as well as five people on ILM Team Leader courses for the first time. Price’s ambition is for this to go up to more than 100 over the next two to three years. He expects OHOB to spend perhaps “three or four times” what it pays in terms of the apprenticeship levy but explains it isn’t about the cost but rather putting in place a programme that will help to build a sustainable pipeline of talent for the future. “The levy has made us look at what more we can do as well as explore how we ensure a return-on-investment for the business,” he says.

Following the military’s lead

Price is also Chairman of the Cross-Industry Construction Apprenticeship Task Force (CCATF) and, as a former apprentice carpenter, went on to successfully establish several construction businesses. He believes the construction industry can learn a lot of lessons from the way the military services markets itself to young people. “They promote the Forces and the career pathways are secondary,” he says. “So we want to say, “here’s what this great industry can offer in terms of a long-term career and training and here are all the pathways you can choose from” which range from Level 1 Basic Skills and Level 2 Handcraft Occupations up to Higher Level and Degree Apprenticeships.”

Price has already identified around 28 apprenticeships pathways that will tackle the skills gaps. As well as in the technical and plant occupations, these cover careers in areas such as accountancy, business administration and HR.

There are particular pain points which he believes the apprenticeship programme can directly address such as the lack of available plant operators. “That is where one of our biggest skills shortages lie and it has started to cause a business problem,” he says. “Plant operators use extremely expensive pieces of kit so we need to make sure we have the right people in place for these roles with the right skills and who understand company values.”

Recruiting groundworkers can represent another challenge as one of the “dirtier” occupations, explains Price. “But, as a job, it involves a range of skills such as kerb-laying, drainage and setting out roads,” he says. “People in the industry sometimes forget that this is a multi-disciplined qualification and we need really competent people to do these jobs.”

OHOB is not an apprenticeship employer-provider but it is something the company might explore in the future. It uses a number of training providers and the breadth of skills it needs means these are often spread across the country. It is therefore used to sending recruits away for training so when it comes to implementing the 20%-off-the-job requirement, the mindset is already in place for managers and individuals. “That said we are also starting to understand how it can be implemented in more flexible ways,” says Price.

Selling a long-term, fulfilling career

While revamping the apprenticeship programme is a big task, Price believes selling the offering will be the bigger challenge. Historically, motivating factors for entering construction have been to follow in a father’s footsteps or perhaps fall into it rather than make a career decision, based on what the industry can offer.

“As an industry we’ve not been as good as we could be at communicating the breadth of offerings available,” he says. “And it is important to get across that just because someone comes in at a lower entry point, it doesn’t preclude them from going on to a Higher or Degree Apprenticeship. One of our most senior people is someone who joined as a labourer 40 years ago and is now our most experienced contract director. We need to communicate that these opportunities are still prevalent going forward.”

Price also wants potential apprentices to see working for OHOB as more than just “getting a job”. “They have to have an enthusiasm and appetite for the sector and a willingness to work and progress.”

OHOB’s skills challenges mirror many of those in the construction company as a whole. Experts predict there will be 168,500 construction jobs created over the over the next five years and, as a whole, the industry recruits an average of 5-10,000 apprentices a year. “So as an industry how are we going to tackle that skills gap?” says Price. “And the more acute the skills gap, the more expensive it will be to get these skills.”

He sees his role both inside and outside of OHOB as championing the construction skills agenda and breaking down some of the barriers and myths that surround working in the sector. “There are many SME builder companies that wouldn’t think of recruiting an apprentice because they believe it is too complicated,” he says. “If they realised it was a fully funded government offer that provides a skills solution that would help them to grow their business, I believe there would be more uptake.”