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”.

CSG: Going With The Flow

Posted on www.csg.co.uk/blog on April 27th 2017

http://www.csg.co.uk/blog/going-with-the-flow/

Brett Ashton is a difficult man to pin down. I called his mobile one morning to discuss this article, only to be met with the reply “Sorry, I’ll have to do this another time – I’m in a nuclear power station”.  As conversation-stoppers go, it’s a pretty good one so we rescheduled at a later date.

Of course the reason Brett can be so elusive is that he’s simply just so busy. As Engineering Supervisor for CSG, he brings an extensive knowledge of pumps and pumping – an ideal specialism as moving liquids is a mainstay of our services. He alternates his time, seemingly daily, between our Head Office in Fareham and any of a number of sites that he oversees.

Service and Maintenance team based at our Head Office in Fareham. Brett Ashton far left.

“I’m really a troubleshooter”, he explains to me, when we find a more appropriate time to speak.  “I carry out the surveys, examine the data, provide the quotes and source the parts.  I do still get my hands dirty but I’m really here to pass on my knowledge when it’s required.”

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Naval life is a great preparation for a career in engineering.  Image: Paul Bentham

Aged 32, he started his career in the Royal Navy, not uncommonly for a son of Portsmouth, and served for two years as an Engineer, mostly aboard HMS Manchester.  Thereafter, he worked in London, maintaining pumps for a variety of clients: “hotels, department stores, fast-food restaurants; mostly heating systems but all pretty similar pumping requirements”.

For the last four years, he’s applied his specialist knowledge here at CSG. He patiently explains the rudiments of pumping: “you’re either looking to get the right level of flow (in litres per minute) or the right distance, which is represented as a curve on a graph.  The complicated bit is when you need to move the curve with the current you have”.

Slowly, it dawns that ‘current’ and ‘flow’ are not interchangeable terms.  ‘Flow’ refers to the liquid motion but the ‘current’ is of the electrical variety, the means of powering the whole operation. Brett casually confirms the realisation “I’m actually a trained plumber and a qualified electrician, which is funny really because usually, they don’t get on!”

Confident and yet self-effacing, he certainly doesn’t give the impression of a person given to internal struggle but his point is well observed – anyone who’s worked on a building site will know the two trades can be capable of mixing about as harmoniously as… well, electricity and water.

It’s certainly not a job for people who don’t like exams.  Brett has had to undertake confined space training, is a qualified slinger and banksman and is UKPIA-accrediated to work on a forecourt.  He’s recently added to this roster by taking a Level 2 & 3 City & Guilds qualification to bolster his electrician’s credentials.  “It involved two years of travelling to London for weekends and a lot of A-level maths!”

Perhaps the most enviable aspect of Brett’s work is the wide variety of places it takes him to.  Aside from his regular presence at that nuclear power station he’s responsible for operations at schools, Forestry Commission sites, RAF barracks and even TV and Film Studios. As it’s a working studios, you have to check your mobile phone in at the front desk because there’s a strict ‘no photography’ policy – so there’s no chance of a selfie with any of the film stars you might come across!”

Occasional brushes with celebrity are nice enough but they pale in comparison to ensuring a job is well done.  Brett explains how smarter technology is helping him to do exactly that.  “Many of our pump stations now have a smart element to them.  This means that not only do they monitor the levels and spot a fault, they can diagnose the problem and email the client and the team here at CSG.  Now, we often don’t need to send out an engineer to look at what’s going on, which is more efficient all round and saves the client money.”

Unsurprisingly, for someone so busy, Brett remains just as active outside of work.  A black belt at karate at the age of 13, he also boxed for the Navy at Lightweight (60Kg). Running and weight-training burn off whatever excess energy remains at the end of the day.

Perhaps the most surprising part of our discussion comes when he declares he’s a big fan of rugby league, in particular the Leeds Rhinos.  Portsmouth is a long way from the sport’s M62-corridor heartland and over 250 miles from Leeds so why the affiliation?  “My Dad used to play for Leeds – when they were just called Leeds – so that’s the main reason but I’d still far rather watch a game of rugby league over union and I try to get up to Headingley to watch a game, when I can.”

What does the future hold for this rugby-league-supporting ex-serviceman of many talents?  “I’ve always preferred to see money as a means to travel rather than just owning stuff and I would like to see more of the world but with a young daughter at the moment, we can’t be too ambitious”.  It’s clear that, sooner or later, this elusive engineer is hoping to be even harder to pin down – for a few weeks of the year, at least!