Learn the tools — AND the business



Being a tradesman — although I haven’t lifted a hammer in anger for quite some time now — I can still remember back to those days of working on huge building sites, with hundreds of others, in freezing London weather, looking forward to that one day a week spent at tech.

At the time it was considered a boring day each week, but at least it was warm!

We learnt the same 40 years ago as the new apprentices learn now — how to build. Yes, there are many subtle differences that have crept in over the years, but building is building.

At the end of your time you feel invincible, and ready to take on the world, build a pyramid or two, and leave your mark on the planet.

Some, like yours truly, go straight out on their own. For me it was a bit of a forced decision as I was made redundant at the age of 19 just as my apprenticeship finished.

Now that was a shock to the system, as my goals in life were all based around the Ford motor company. The site foreman drove a brown Mk 2 Escort and the site manager drove a green Mk 4 Cortina. Maybe small goals, but at 19 who cares about titles — just give me the company wheels.

My world was turned upside down but, looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened, as it has shaped the past 35 years for me.

The other earth tremor on my last day on site was some rather unscrupulous geezer walking off with all my tools while we were celebrating my departure down the local pub. Timing eh!

So there I am, out on my own, certificates to say I’m good at what I do, four years of experience, a bag of new tools and, luckily, a job to do. I am invincible and, bugger the Fords, I’m after a Jaguar.

Now the real learning begins, and this has been my gripe with apprenticeship schemes then and now. As a business coach for more than a decade, this point has re-surfaced over and over again, and not just in the construction sector but in all trades.

Yes, we are taught our trade and we are taught very well — but where is the training for the real world skills that are needed for working in the industry and, more so, running a business within the industry?

It could be argued that, traditionally, the apprenticeship scheme is skill-based learning, and is there solely to teach apprentices how to build.

But running your own business is skill-based as well, and include skills that are essential for survival. Even if just the basics are included so the eyes and brain are opened up to the fact that swinging a hammer or fitting a roof tile do not make adequate, let alone good, business people or people managers.

So what are those basics? There are many, and they cover the whole gambit of business and may well be too in depth for an 18-year-old to take on board.

If a few sessions could be added into the mix at apprentice level on business planning, team management, basic systems, cost-effective marketing and, the killer — financial control, which must include proper and full costing — I guarantee there would be fewer bankruptcies in the building sector.

If it sinks in or not, as long as it is delivered in a way that says “you need these skills so seek help before you take the leap into the world of high business”.

Or, more to the point, get some advice before you spend the first job deposit on a down payment for the new Ranger. Only then will the training sector have done its job better — if only from the moral perspective.

There are many courses out there that may seem tedious to the young and restless but, take my word, based on 35 years of experience, if I had taken a course or two back in the early 1980s I would be driving an Aston Martin DB or whatever now, and not an ageing British classic with way too many kilometres on the clock.

The moral of this story is that young people can get a trade and it will set you up for life — but don’t stop learning once your time is up.

Look, find and undertake business courses as well and, last of all, don’t buy the big toys on tick or at the start of your career.