CSG: Apprenticeships – Back to the Future

Posted on http://www.csg.co.uk/blog on March 16th 2020

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/apprenticeships-back-to-the-future

If you were asked to name five things you know about CSG, you’d probably list our reputation for excellence in waste treatment, our Hampshire base, our long history, our nationwide reach and our family heritage. You’d be right on all five counts, of course, but could you keep adding to that list – and how far down the list would you get before you mentioned CSG’s strong advocacy of apprenticeships?

To many people, the word ‘apprentice’ can summon images of a bygone age and long-forgotten trades. The implementation may have changed over the years, but the basic premise never really went away and there’s much to suggest that it should form a vital part of the knowledge economy we’re shaping. At CSG, a commitment to apprenticeships is more than just a way of developing skilled workers that offers benefits for all concerned. It’s deeply embedded in the most dearly held values of the company. Take a look through these pages and you’ll see how CSG have been strong supporters of apprenticeship schemes for years, offering industry skills and opportunity for young workers.

As you may imagine, there are many good reasons for advocating apprenticeships but chief amongst them is that the principle is embraced at the highest level – and for Managing Director, Neil Richards, the attachment is personal. Asking him to recount his own experiences as an apprentice, you soon realise that this is a subject that continues to inspire him.

“In Spring 1972, I was a sixteen-year-old lad, only bothered about kicking a ball around with my mates and wondering which girl to go out with on a Saturday. My time at school was coming to an end and I’d had enough of being taught subjects that didn’t interest me. I knew I needed to get into the world of work, and I was fortunate to live in a town where I could be taken on as an apprentice by the local employer.”

The town was Connah’s Quay, a port on the mouth of the River Dee in Flintshire, North Wales and the local employer was Shotton Steelworks. At the time, it was part of the nationalised British Steel and employed over 11,000 workers, a huge proportion of the local workforce. In order to be taken on as an apprentice, school leavers had to meet a certain grade standard at the preliminary level of examinations (CSEs), rather than attaining a certain number of final O-levels (GCEs).

“I knew I wasn’t interested with further education, so I was determined to become an apprentice at Shotton’s. I knuckled down and studied hard for my CSEs and, when I got the results [successfully, and with final exams still to take], I didn’t bother after that. I started as a General Engineering apprentice in the September with 44 other lads and it was the most valuable four years of my life.”

The scale of the steel-making operation at Shotton’s was huge – mind-bogglingly huge – at 470 hectares or nearly two square miles, the site was as large as Hyde Park and Central Park combined. Each year, workers in variety of different trades were required across a number of different processes. Apprentices were rotated around the operation in order to gain experience of the blast furnace, precision engineering, locomotive maintenance, the coke ovens, the main steelworks, the hot mill, the cold mill and the finishing plant. As a result, each would have practical, on-the-job experience of boiler making, electrical engineering, mechanics, fitting and machining. After two years, each retained apprentice was asked to specialise in one of these fields. Neil became an apprentice fitter and served another two years before he was automatically taken on, at almost three times his initial wage.

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Neil Richards (Centre), with fellow apprentices at Shotton Steel, 1974.

It may seem that these basic facts sum up the process just as you’d expect: a school leaver, a selection process, an amount of time served, learning about a variety of technical processes and a skilled job at the end of the process. While all that is true, Neil is quick to explain how the real benefits of his apprenticeship went far, far beyond that.

“We were trained by people who cared deeply about us, about our ability to do the job well. I never questioned it at the time but it’s clear that they were keen to pass on the quality of their own training to those that followed. Of course, you were also exposed to a wide variety of types of people: there were hard workers, slow workers, charmers, sulkers, academics and BS merchants. Without realising it, you were gaining the mental tools to be able to deal with all these different types, to work with them or to resolve a problem.”

The most obvious benefit of the system was that it instilled in each apprentice a sense that, when qualified and working as a senior employee, the same quality of instruction and advocacy was passed on (or ‘paid forward’) to the next generation of apprentices, continuing a cycle intended to keep going in perpetuity.

As most university students would agree, Neil’s story highlights that fact the subject of the apprenticeship may have been the area of study but the life lessons that came with it were the true education. Unlike the graduates of those days, being parachuted into management roles, it would take several years and a great deal of upheaval for the true value of that education to become apparent.

The 1970s had dawned still with the optimism of Harold Wilson’s “white heat” of technological revolution. England were football world champions, standards of education were improving, unemployment was falling, and social mobility was arguably at its highest-ever level. As the decade wore on, it became clear that the good times couldn’t last. A combination of loss-making across most of the UK’s nationalised industries, plummeting productivity and increased industrial unrest had made the large, monolithic plants like Shotton Steel vulnerable. With the availability of cheaper alternatives from abroad in an increasingly global market, there could be no return to profitability. In March 1980, British Steel closed the plant, with the loss of 6,500 jobs, an event described by some media reports as the biggest industrial redundancy on a single day in Western Europe.

With the certainties of a ‘job for life’ at Shotton’s in tatters, Neil had to change his own career trajectory. Instead of specialising in engineering, he soon became a foreman at the Rolls-Royce-owned Deeside Titanium, making turbine blades for jet engines from the strongest metallic element in the table. This change of direction required him to gain a degree in Chemistry but also saw him develop his people management skills. The Open University took care of the degree, but the understanding of motivation and management all came from the lessons he’d learned as an apprentice on most of the shop floor at Shotton’s.

Suddenly, the early 1980s had become a very different time for school-leavers seeking job skills. Without the same level of large-scale industrial employers, required to think long-term, the economy had become largely comprised of smaller, more agile businesses in retail and service sectors, with a much shorter-term outlook and far less need for formal apprenticeships. It meant that just as many school leavers each year were added to the job market, but skilled labour was dwindling and where unemployment was rocketing. The net effect was that the role of apprenticeships had less to do with preparation for a fulfilling trade but often as a cover to replace mature workers with lower-cost teenage alternatives under the ‘YTS’ or Youth Training Scheme, a practice Neil Richards describes as “cynical”.

If the effects of Thatcherism had reduced the currency of apprenticeships, a further blow to the practice came from a more surprising source over a decade later. In September 1999, Tony Blair told the Labour Party Conference, “today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century”. It was an ambitious statement, and doubtless a well-intended one, but by overtly valuing higher education above vocational training, it seemed to have the effect of dismissing the value of apprenticeships, further reducing its image to one of out-dated irrelevance.

Over twenty years on from Blair’s announcement, Neil is still animated in his disapproval of that policy: “Of course we need better-qualified workers, no-one would suggest otherwise. Higher education is a wonderful thing. I have a degree and CSG can only function as it does by the number of people here who are qualified to the level that they are – but they will always only be a proportion of the workforce. We’ll always have a need for people who understand the practicalities instead of the theory – and there’ll always be a proportion of capable youngsters who won’t want to carry on informal education but have their own contribution to make and are just looking for the opportunity to be trained. I firmly believe that policy set back apprenticeships for a long time – but now, I sense, it’s coming back.”

The figures suggest he might be right. Despite several calls from various groups in the intervening years for Labour’s symbolic 50% target to be abolished, it was reported last year that it had indeed been reached, according to figures from the Department for Education, which placed the number at 50.2%. This suggests that vocational learning must have diminished but between 2013 and 2017, the number of vocational qualifications awarded went up by over 50%. In the same period, the number of apprenticeships around the country have remained static at around half a million each year, with the average duration increasing from just over a year to over eighteen months.

Neil’s experiences – and those of his colleagues from those days – are a testament to the value of a solid grounding in a nurturing environment where skills continue to hold value, all elements that should be just as relevant today. Interestingly, there was one aspect of those 1970s apprenticeships that did need to change. The fact that they were designed for huge, inflexible corporations meant that their aim really extended only to developing the operating skills of the apprentice. In a time when ‘Management’ and ‘Staff’ were kept entirely separate, there was little expectation that even the best operator could be considered for anything other than an operator’s role. The strong unionisation of such places also meant that there was a ‘pecking order’ to determine career progression, which often overlooked ability in place of ‘time served’. Neil’s experiences show that the ‘soft skills’ he acquired almost as a by-product of his apprenticeship were just as much of a driver of his career as his technical abilities. We’d all like to think that we live in a more merit-driven world these days; one in which there are no closed routes to management positions or diversification. Today at CSG, there’s no expectation that better qualification can lead to managerial roles, but neither is there any sense of a glass ceiling to anyone with management aspirations.

CSG now offer apprenticeship schemes, wherever possible, across the business. Currently, those who’ve been through the process account for approximately 25% of our technical positions. We’d like those numbers to be higher. Quite apart from the importance of apprenticeships as a means to add skills, they’re also a way to demonstrate worth and this too is one of CSG’s core values. Where many employers circumvent minimum wage obligations to operate unpaid internships, CSG is determined to offer positions of real value, with real prospects.

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Apprentice Callum HealeyCallum Healy is one of many CSG employees taken on via an apprenticeship scheme.  Photo: CSG

The nature of most businesses today means that contemporary apprenticeships are necessarily narrower in their scope than in days gone by – but the possibilities they can lead to are now generally wider. Does that make them better or worse than those offered in the 1970s? Perhaps that’s a misleading question – we can’t turn the clock back to those days, even if we wanted to – the real comparison should be that a world of today’s apprenticeship schemes, informed by the best practices of those from the past, must be infinitely preferable to one in which such schemes do not feature.

As we enter a new decade, it’s fair to conclude that CSG is keen to continue to pay forward the benefits of Neil’s own apprenticeship experience, tailored for the demands of today’s workforce but still intrinsically offering the same slice of opportunity. The idea has survived many changes to the economy, but its basic tenets remain. Thanks to the whole notion of apprenticeships, the future will always benefit from the investments of the past.

CSG: Driving Ambition

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on March 1st 2018

https://www.csg.co.uk/blog/driving-ambition 

It’s 6am and another day begins for Ben Tully at our Botley depot. Ben is 21 and has just completed his apprenticeship and is ready to make the next move to become a tanker driver. Until he’s qualified to drive, he will remain a ‘second man’, assisting drivers in their daily rounds of collections from domestic and industrial customers across the Hampshire area, and beyond.

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Ben at the wheel of one of our tankers.  Photo: CSG

Before he even gets in the lorry, there are checks to make to today’s vehicle. First, tyre pressure and wheel nuts, then oil and water checks, before lights and then the pipes and equipment involved with pumping the waste. Finally, a top-up of the diesel tank, if necessary and it’s time to get started on today’s list of jobs. On most days, it’s 6:15 as they leave the yard.

CSG’s innovative PDA-based system arranges the jobs for all our tanker teams and so they consult the electronic device to see where they will be headed first. Like a SatNav, the system will expect the journey to take a certain amount of time and their ETA will be the similar to the time given to the customer to expect them. As long as there are no significant traffic delays, it all works perfectly.

Once they arrive at each job, Ben and his driver will work together to prepare the site for the collection, using cones to cordon off the area, where necessary. Pipes are laid out and manhole covers are lifted and fitted with our unique safety barriers while the collection takes place.

If the site is a petrol station forecourt, the brief closure of the station can sometimes visibly frustrate the odd motorist but the occasional over-reaction is something Ben has learned to take in his stride:

“You get used to it. I’m just doing my job but people don’t always see it that way. I’ve found that the best thing to do is just smile and wave.”

Lunch can be taken anywhere but the timing is dictated by the lorry’s tacograph, which must show that a 45-minute break has been taken after six hours. Like most drivers, Ben takes his lunch with him, together with a flask of tea and a bottle of water.

It can make for an unusually close working relationship, spending hours together in the confines of a lorry cab, driving from one job to the next. As with any working environment, some people may be easier to work with than others but such proximity often means that drivers and their assistants will very quickly get to know each other quite well – a closeness that can be quite helpful when the two are dependent upon one another once they arrive at the next site.

“It’s great when you can have a laugh together but whoever the driver is that I’m working with, I always find something to chat about, whether it’s football or things going on at work.”

The job can be quite physically demanding and being able to do the job in all conditions is essential. Ben takes it all in his stride.

“I often go to the gym after work but I don’t mind missing a day if it’s too busy because just doing the job can be like a workout. Cold weather is one thing but it’s better than working in the driving rain. Even then, I’d still rather be too cold than too hot because you can always put on another layer. We make sure we have spare clothes in the cab.”

Most days, Ben and his driver are back at the depot at around 4:45 but if the schedule and traffic dictate otherwise, it may be later than that. Again, the ‘taco’ has to be obeyed so timings have to be quite precise.

The next move for this former apprentice is to progress to driving a tanker himself. That means passing an HGV test and also attaining a CPC (Certificate of Professional Competence) qualification for drivers. Having gained both, he will then initially drive on his own and can eventually expect to have his own apprentice. And so the cycle will start again.

CSG are a firm supporter of apprenticeships and have found the scheme beneficial to the development of many individuals in roles across the company. Our Managing Director Neil Richards is firm advocate and has in the past stated that investing in programmes that develop skills is a great way to counter perceptions that the waste industry is too reliant on low-skilled labour.

“Our apprentices are encouraged to develop skills and earn good qualifications with the prospect of a career with us, and earn a wage at the same time. We aim to steadily increase the number of employees following apprenticeship schemes in all areas of our business”

We wish Ben the best of luck in his forthcoming test and we’re sure it won’t be long before he’s working with his own apprentice.

CSG: In A Positive Place

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on May 19th 2017

http://www.csg.co.uk/blog/in-a-positive-place/

The concept of apprenticeship seems to be a strangely controversial one. We often hear how, in “the good old days”, being an apprentice was admired as the only way to enter a trade and how it combined on-the-job learning with real-life values of respect and professional conduct – something worth preserving, you’d think.

And yet a quick Google news search on the subject throws up a myriad of pages that are anywhere between lukewarm and critical of the Government’s latest initiative, the Apprenticeship Levy, with fears of flawed planning, spiralling costs, even job losses all being cited. It all seems as if the merits of apprenticeship are in danger of being forgotten amongst all the doom-mongering, hidden-agenda crossfire.

Daniel Fairhurst is a real-world reminder of what this is all about. At 19, he’d already started to gain experience of electrical work, with seven months with a council housing company in Salford, working on refurbishments. As with many a 19 year-old, thrust into a shop-floor environment, he describes his younger self as quiet and shy. Aside from learning the ropes from older, more experienced colleagues, he quickly understood that the less technical aspects of the job were just as important: “the tenants were still living in the houses while I was working on them – which made things interesting from time to time. One time, there was a guy hiding in his mum’s loft, on the run from the Police!”

After accidentally landing a job at CSG (he’d handed in his CV to a lady at a nearby company who’d happened to pass it to her husband, working at Cadishead), Dan was enrolled on three-year apprenticeship programme, which incorporated City & Guilds and NVQ qualifications with Salford College.c

Earlier this year, Dan, now 22, completed the programme and gained his Level 2 & 3 qualifications. Three years into his career with CSG, he’s come a long way from the quiet lad who joined the company.

“I’m definitely more confident when I’m in work. Obviously, I’m more confident about the stuff I’m qualified in but I also trust my common sense a lot more and I feel more able to show the real side of my personality. Usually, when there’s an issue with any machinery on site, it’s down to us in the Electrical team to diagnose it. If it’s a purely electrical situation, we’ll deal with it. Sometimes, there might also be a mechanical aspect, which I’ll pass on to the Engineering team but I’ll let them know what I think it is and what I think they should do. We like to keep Engineering on their toes – and we know they’ll give it us back if they get a chance. There’s a lot of black humour involved but it’s a positive part of the job and it keeps you sharp. There’s a kudos to being able to say ‘I spotted this’ – and I like being right! I’m very competitive: a poor loser and an even worse winner.”

In many ways, this is a part of apprenticeship that’s just as important as gaining the formal knowledge and experience required to do the job. While it can easily be dismissed as unproductive ‘banter’, the dynamics of working closely with other people, other departments and other companies, each with their differing rules of engagement, encourage a set of soft skills that are often just as useful as those that require a qualification. Words like ‘rapport’ and ‘negotiation’ can often seem like old-fashioned notions from a time when tasks weren’t so process-driven and people were often expected to ‘wing it’ to get the job done.

Today, we’re often conditioned to view any departure from process as a failure – and in lots of cases they are – but that’s not to say that the older values are out-dated. In fact, the opposite is probably true: if it’s true that fewer people today rely on softer skills such as empathy, humour and building rapport, those who can utilise them will stand out more prominently.

Every time Dan is called to a job at Cadishead, whether it’s a £150,000 metal recycling baler or a malfunctioning kettle, he’s not just assessing the electrical considerations (although that’s obviously the most basic requirement), he’s also balancing the priority of the job to the company, compared to the rest of that day’s workload, he’s working within set operational parameters, particularly those of Health & Safety and he’s trying to meet the immediate needs of the person or people most closely affected.

In short, he has the capacity to be everyone’s friend – even though circumstances can often dictate that he has to disappoint someone. I made a point of asking how much of all of that was covered in his coursework. “There’s always a Health & Safety aspect to any of the work we do so I’d say we covered that but the rest of it is just up to me to use my common sense”

Far from merely being ‘common sense’ the world of work is now beginning to value soft skills and encourage their development. Like the very concept of apprenticeship, where values were passed down for centuries before the idea seemed to fall out of favour and then, with recent initiatives, began to experience a renaissance, even common sense itself has become recognised as not being common enough, in need of passing on, in all its various forms. The wheel has turned full circle, it seems.

In fact, for Dan, it keeps turning. With one programme completed, he’s about to embark on the next one, an Apprenticeship Levy-funded HNC in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Trafford College. It’s a sign of his growing development and importance to CSG but it’s also an opportunity for which he’s “particularly grateful”.

Away from work, Dan keeps up his competitive streak at the gym. But when time allows, he’s a keen attendee of various festivals around the country and expects one day to make his way round Europe to some of the biggest festivals in the world. He’s made a habit in recent years of spending St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, which sounds like a mission not for the faint-hearted! He’d also like to set his sights further at some stage, with Australia on his bucket list of destinations.

In the meantime, he’s working on his next target, which is to live “for at least a couple of years” right in the centre of Manchester – just as soon as his student mates graduate and start earning money! I put it to him that it sounds like something similar to the setting of ‘Friends’ – and if so, which character would that make him? We’d already discussed a love of food so the instant answer came as no surprise – “Joey!”

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“How you doin’?”

Dan is a perfect example of the benefits of apprenticeship – to employer and employee alike. His growing skill set, encouraged by further learning and day-to-day experience in a nurturing environment are just what CSG and, by extension, any company, should hope to gain from the principle. It’s also encouraging to think that across the country, the Apprenticeship Levy is encouraging the next wave of skilled workers, just like Dan and definitely not, as the song says, “stuck in second gear”.