Environmental Products

Workforce Capability: Avoiding the ?morning test?

In 2007, in a galaxy far, far away (or so it seems now), Hutchinson Builders was experiencing a massive skilled labour shortage, which usually ended in someone getting a trial on one of its sites but generally not lasting after smoko on the first day.

Hence the reference to what was termed the “morning tea test”.

The company was also frustrated with the inflexibility demonstrated by the registered training organisations (RTOs) of the day when it attempted to organise training for staff, including apprentices.

It appeared you could have any colour as long as it was black – with apologies to Henry Ford.

Consequently, the scene was set for a major strategic shift in the way Hutchinson Builders developed its current and future workforce, and insulated itself against the inevitable skilled labour shortages that plague the construction materials industry with monotonous regularity.

Hutchinson Builders – or “Hutchies” as it is affectionately known – has been established since 1912 and takes a counterintuitive approach in a commercial construction industry dominated by large builders that are becoming more like project managers, with large transient workforces of sub-contractors.

This contemporary example of commercial building has at its core a series of potential weaknesses:

  • Quality and productivity is dependent on the capability of the sub-contractors selected.
  • Low levels of formal qualifications and training in trades leads to a “blind leading the blind” approach in skills transfer.
  • There is little commitment to apprenticeships and thus the future skills base of the industry is slowly eroding.

When these systemic weaknesses are coupled with a sometimes clanking, unresponsive, inflexible public and private training provider network, the inevitable result is an industry trapped in the last century by its own lack of foresight.

Fortunately, the Hutchies board travelled a different path. Built on the experience of more than 100 years, Hutchies prefers to use its own staff wherever possible to design, manage, build and maintain its many projects, ranging from some of the first brick schools in Brisbane to large $245 million apartment towers in the Sydney CBD.

DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY {{image2-A:R-w:220}}Even after the global financial crisis, Hutchies has maintained a steady focus on implementing a workforce development strategy with a vision of consolidating capacity, capability, productivity and quality.

The strategy has five main actions designed to satisfy that vision:

  1. Attract and recruit the right people with the potential skills to become productive members of the Hutchies “family”.
  2. Train with an innovative and flexible approach that reflects the needs and availability of the site and employees.
  3. Retain and develop employees through career planning matched to training needs.
  4. Maintain the post-trade and professional skills of staff.
  5. Sustain the program with sufficient funding and support to ensure its success.

These actions have been implemented against an internal backdrop of Hutchinson’s workforce development team working hard to “sell” the strategy to up to 22 operational teams across Australia.

Without buy-in by those teams, the vision articulated by the board would never be realised. The trick was to integrate these actions into the everyday building activities of those teams.

In addition, the strategy had to interact with an external training network that continues to be complicated and often unresponsive and expensive. Inevitably, this meant taking risks. General construction and training in general has historically been characterised by such features as:

  • Face to face, block release, simulated training sessions.
  • Poor quality or antiquated learning resources.
  • Limited opportunity for innovation, with a “quality” training system more focused on process than outcomes.

The solution was to take a large financial, low initial yield approach to develop as much in-house workforce development capability as possible. This was initiated by setting a target to have 15 per cent of total workforce numbers as apprentices and cadets.

However, targets are one thing; the result was eventual development of an enterprise-based RTO that has “campuses” situated on working construction sites and a team of trainers and apprentice/cadet development co-ordinators to make this target a reality.

“Task-based”1 rather than competency-based training materials and systems have been designed that provide a blended delivery2 approach and content that is “Hutchified” to give immediate relevance and contextualisation.

In addition, a future leaders program and post-trade/professional skill development program have been developed that enable Hutchies teams to access a broad range of skills development options for new and existing staff via a career planning system still under development.

All this in turn has led to a cultural shift within teams and a greater focus on the use of formal career planning processes, leading to training targeted at meeting identified areas of improvement.

So what are the universal lessons in all this?

At a recent national training forum, a delegate stood up and asked the age-old question: “What if I put time and money into training my people and they leave for another employer?”

The answer was simple but quite prophetic and gets to the heart of all workforce development activities: “What if you don’t train them and they stay?”

Quality training (workforce development) is always a sound investment because decisions made every day by your staff
affect the products you are producing and the price to make those products.3

Hutchies has put this skills/productivity focus in a construction context that it emphasises in everything it does. The company defines productivity as effective use of resources (human, equipment, materials and financial) to complete a task or manufacture a product to a required standard (quality, quantity, time).

Consequently, Hutchinson’s skills development activities are all about understanding and maximising that productivity.
Ultimately, workforce development has a critical impact on the bottom line – and let’s face it, if we don’t focus on that we won’t be around 100 years from now! 

Alan Waldron is the inaugural national training manager of Hutchinson Builders. He is presenting on skills development at CMIC14 in Brisbane on 4 September, 2014.

1. Task-based materials have been written that “cluster” like competencies together around a recognisable theme, eg slab on ground.
2. Blended delivery involves potential modes to meet the needs of the learner, eg face to face, distance online simulation and on the job.
3. Quarry Mine Systems blog. Improving your quarry operations from the inside out. 

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