We can be our own worst enemies

Rory MacGillivray, founder of MacGillivrays Floor Furnishing, details how he
feels about the evolution of training, how it stood him in good stead and how
the process can be improved, by ADAM BERNSTEIN.

THE line - those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – from Spaniard George Santayana, is often quoted in one form or another. And he was right; by looking back at what we’ve done before we can improve on what we do going forward – it’s the reason we train and learn new skills.

Rory MacGillivray, founder of MacGillivrays Floor Furnishing, based on the Scottish islands, believes the trade is generally heading the right way when it comes to training; he’s seen opportunities really evolve during his time in the trade. ‘Turn the clock back to 1990,’ he says, ‘there were very few training centres and course options.’

In this interview, he tells how, when he started, he went to RBI in Kidderminster when it was run by John Hopkins and the late Mike Page: ‘I started with standard courses but then moved on to bespoke courses which RBI was excellent at setting up. Shortly afterward I started attending courses run by Sid Bourne, where I was able to get courses specifically designed to suit.’

For him, his success is a function of the training and the trainers he met – ‘they were excellent, I owe these guys a huge amount. They saw a young lad full of enthusiasm, desperate to learn and they responded accordingly. I’ve still got the rule given to me on day one of my first course at RBI’.

But as time marches on, Rory has seen training become more product-specific with more options and courses at varying levels. As he sees it, trainees now benefit from ‘very experienced floorlayers willing to pass on their knowledge, experience, and tips and tricks of the trade’. In fact, he can’t think of any flooring product where someone cannot get the training that they need.

The present
As for the current state of flooring training, Rory is mostly content. He says: The training offered by reputable training providers is excellent and organisations such as FITA or the NICF do offer really good informative and practical courses.’

He reckons they’re not only in touch but also involved with the industry at all stages, from manufacture of product to its installation and aftercare.

However, it’s not all an A* rating for training. On government-sponsored courses such as modern apprenticeships, he says ‘there needs to be more done to make them attractive… there seems to be more focus on academia than on practical training and that needs to change.’

Why? Rory – and this makes good logical sense – says it’s very difficult to keep floorlayers engaged in the course and the trade if they’re spending too long in the classroom. Rory’s solution is to ‘take them to the platforms, get them training on tasks like welding and seaming - skills they get little opportunity to do in the workplace. As they progress watch their confidence grow’.

But it’s not just the course formats that need to be looked at says Rory. He feels employers need to be more supportive of their apprentice’s development – ‘they’re supposed to be an investment after all’.

He’s seen first-hand - from onsite assessments - that ‘too many times employers take very little interest in their apprentices, leaving the responsibility to a floorlayer who hasn’t been given the time needed to help with the apprentices’ development.’ The result? An apprentice who’s still sweeping floors six months or in some cases, 12 months later; it’s understandable why they eventually leave.

Rory firmly believes this makes no sense and says he ‘made sure my apprentices were encouraged to develop from day one. Why would I or my floorlayers with 20- or 30-years’ experience (with wear-and-tear to show for it), do all the fitting when we had at our disposal apprentices desperate to learn?’

And that’s the nub of the matter for Rory; employers should look to the future and see employees as assets rather than as cannon fodder to be hired and fired.

Improving the regime
No training regime will ever be perfect. It shouldn’t be static – it should improve over time. While some training leads to an exam which just requires a pass, Rory asks if this cliff-edge should be changed to make the process more encouraging.

He points to the example of a trainee on one of his modern apprenticeship courses: ‘We had a young guy who was exceptional so at the end of year one he was achieving year four work - because he had the ability and an employer who encouraged him. His assessment work was so good it would have been viewed suspiciously if we hadn’t seen him do the work.’

And here’s where the problem lay for Rory: in assessor comments he marked the work as ‘very good - very competent’. However, the external verifier told him he could only mark the trainee as ‘competent’ or ‘not competent’.

In Rory’s eyes, ‘how do you motivate anyone to strive towards being a better tradesperson if you down mark their work - which is what I felt I did. How then do you reward when one does better?’ The whole saga upset Rory since the whole portfolio was downgraded despite the exceptionally high standard the trainee achieved - ‘he got no better qualification than a fellow classmate who scraped through. I’m all for helping those not quite so able but I disagree that it should be at the expense of the clearly talented’.

And as Rory points out, the form of marking should be a worry for employers because ‘at job application, how does an employer know who is the better installer? There starts a lack of trust in the system’.

He’s convinced courses should seek to achieve desired outcomes, interest the trainee, and have the full backing of the employer – ‘it’s not about challenging the trainee too much from the outset, it’s about building confidence. Challenge will come and be better achieved with confidence behind it’.

So, in an ideal world, Rory would have courses broken down into two categories - training and development that can be done onsite (such as subfloors, screeding, laying out floors, and stretch-fitting; and then those things that are better done in a training centre (say seaming, welding, stairs, cap-and-coving, and assessments). Reconsidering Santayana’s earlier lesson, Rory advocates the line that ‘the overall idea is you go to the trainer to learn, not to continually repeat what you’re already competent in’.

But to make the best better - to achieve outcomes to the highest standards – ‘trainees need support and encouragement to develop’. And he practices what he preaches. ‘We used this format for 25 years and it worked very well indeed. Encouragement and support are the keywords. Too many times have I witnessed a desire to knock the apprentice down, and almost every time the comment is ‘that’s how I learned’.’

Rory says times have changed, and he subscribes to the view ‘you get far more from your apprentice with fair praise than you will ever get through criticism’.

TRAINING needs to be delivered properly and appropriately and Rory holds bodies such as FITA in high esteem and considers them to be the future of the trade if it’s to achieve high standards and respect.

It bothers him greatly when he reads ‘unfair and inaccurate social media abuse’ of organisations such as FITA from fitters who he thinks have never been on their courses. He offers up oft-used phrases such as  ‘classroom training’, ‘not the real world’, and ‘I’ve done it this way for the past 30 years, so I’m not changing now’ that he says are posted on various social media platforms by those using smart devices which didn’t exist 30 years ago.

Rory’s keen to emphasise the benefit of training centres and that they do work. He says he’s the product of the ‘not real world’ training school. ‘I didn’t have a journeyman to help me when I got back from the courses… everything I learned I did so in a training centre and through a fax and a landline.’ And it’s telling that he’s opened three shops which his apprentices now run as their own.

It’s just as interesting that he proudly highlights that he’s previously won UK Floorlayer of the Year 1999; has run training courses for Construction Skills and Tredaire; spent five years demonstrating products at Domotex; has been to Las Vegas twice as a guest to the American floor show Surfaces; and has been lucky enough to receive £10,000 worth of tools to trial.

‘Not bad for a guy who was ‘taught in a box’ and not the ‘real world,’ he says. But what seems to grate on him most is the ‘nonsensical bad attitude and critique from senior fitters who offer no alternatives as to how to train new floorlayers’.

Fundamentally, Rory says training courses do have their place and that perhaps the problem is ‘the lack of opportunity to put the training into practice when back in the workplace’.

He backs this up with the example of a job where he had to fit a 200sq m Junckers sprung floor into a community hall.

‘We knew how to do the install, but I decided it would be a great opportunity to hire Sid Bourne and use the job as a training opportunity.’ He says that so many asked why he felt he needed training as he’d already achieved so much in the trade?

The answer was, for Rory, quite simple: ‘The chance to learn more, improve my team’s ability and product knowledge. We learned a tremendous amount from Sid especially on how to avoid potential problems that we now use on every job we do. That one training course helped reduce risk to new levels that every single wood job we do today benefits from.’

Now Rory makes his killer point.

‘Today, in almost all walks of life there are respected grades of qualifications for everything - from electricians and heating engineers to hotel star rating, and classes on flights. But for the flooring trade? We seem to promote cheapness, not standards or quality.

‘Right now, a top-quality Brinton’s carpet will be fitted by the guys who will do it for the lowest price. Can you imagine a high-end Audi or BMW being serviced by an unqualified guy who will do it for the least? I love the trade, but I fear at times that we are our own worst enemies.’

Going beyond flooring
Of course, there’s more to running a flooring business than fitting carpet or jointing oak flooring. Those in the sector need management skills to be able to run businesses better, either on their own account or on behalf of their employer.

Rory’s pleased these skills are offered through the modern apprenticeship. But he worries that running a business isn’t for everyone and he doesn’t want those without the ability to do so if they haven’t the aptitude: ‘I’ve seen very good floorlayers decide to run their own businesses and it hasn’t worked out. But what I think would be beneficial is additional units to achieve more understanding of other areas within the flooring trade.’

He says there’s a lack of understanding or respect for each - installers think the shops they work for make a fortune with little or no understanding of their costs, overheads, or competition.

But at the other end of the spectrum, he’s seen shops thinking floorlayers make a fortune with little or no appreciation for the workload and effort needed. He sympathises with both.

Making the pay grade
There’s nothing but good in learning, but it has to be paid properly or the trade will suffer. And on this Rory thinks that pay has become a serious issue with rates for modern apprenticeships being set too low in his view. He argues that trade apprenticeships are being significantly outbid by other job offers for school-leavers:

‘A school-leaver starting an apprenticeship will be on half what a labourer will be on. Granted, one will eventually have a trade, one won’t, but despite that, how do you sell a trade opportunity to your son or daughter when they are quoting their school pal is on twice their wage?’

He offers an example of pragmatism. In his company, he’s overcome the resistance to apprenticeships by speaking to the potential recruit and their parents. ‘We said ‘no’ to modern apprenticeships. We’ll train you, send you on courses, help you with your portfolio, and when you reach the stage when you’re sufficiently experienced, we’ll put you through the experienced worker route and help you gain your qualification that way.’

The reasoning for this line isn’t hard for him to explain – ‘we had no option as modern apprenticeships simply didn’t appeal to us, or the trainees. Our offer was of a higher standard, more focused, and a more enjoyable route to qualification’.

And to prove the point he’s had almost zero drop out whereas through modern apprenticeships the dropout rate for other companies was seen as unsustainable.

But the world is changing, and Rory is concerned for the trade’s future as more are leaving than coming in. ‘For love nor money, we cannot get an apprentice - we always had two or three on the books but now haven’t had an apprentice for nearly 10 years.’ He puts this partly down to exploitation, which in his experience as a flooring assessor, was linked to lack of training or development.

This is made worse because the low wage structure of apprentices means there’s no real need to get a return: ‘I’ve lost count in the number of sites I’ve visited where I see an apprentice almost brain-numbed because they’re still sweeping floors and haven’t progressed.’ Many, he says, leave for that reason.

This is why he feels if the wage structure were to improve ‘there’d be in my opinion more effort by the employer to get a return’. This is why he sees value in FITA and other short course providers and why they’re successful - trainees spend the whole week engaged and actually learned something at a cost.

Is training value for money? Rory would say so, absolutely. However, he adds that ‘in too many situations, when back to the workplace, pressure and stresses on companies and floorlayers to sell and install large quantities takes over and it reverts again to who can install the most, fastest for at the lowest cost’.

Ultimately, Rory compares flooring to other trades and how they’re structured in their workforce development, standards, qualifications, and pricing – ‘flooring is behind the curve’.