Q&A John Richardson, Production Director of EE Smith

BCFA member EE Smith recently agreed to answer our questions about their thriving apprenticeship scheme and how they have placed training at the heart of their business.  Design Insider met with John Richardson, Production Deirector of EE Smith to find out more.

Can you tell us a little about EE Smith and the markets that you operate in?

Here at EE Smith we provide an unparalleled client focused service across all prestigious interior sectors, where our tremendously high standards have become our trademark. No job is too complex for EE Smith Contracts Ltd. We operate in a variety of sectors, from prestige hotels to commercial interiors and luxury private residences. Our extensive manufacturing capability enables us to deliver unsurpassed levels of craftsmanship, and our exceptional level of service fosters strong and lasting business relationships with our clients for 124 years.

When did you first set up your apprenticeship scheme? and why is skills development so important for you?
Many years ago, my father started working for Edward Elijha Smith when he was just 14 years old, EES trained him into his protégée & after returning from war, my father took over from our founder EES at just 24 as the Manging Director. Although this isn’t your typical college apprenticeship, this kind of investment into young people has continued ever since. I began as an apprentice too, around 35 years ago & we still have a strong, evolving relationship with the same college who taught me all those years ago! Our on-site training is a lot more recent, but has been a huge success in the 3-4 years it’s been running now. We look forward to what the future holds with regards to our extensive, continuous apprenticeship scheme.

What is your overall approach to skills development within EE Smith?
Due to our work being so bespoke, it’s vital that our staff are all trained to the same level of expertise. This ensures consistency & more importantly quality across the board. Not only that, but it helps create a real sense of family amongst our workshop. In addition, to find these skills on the open market is proving more than ever a challenge, hence our in-house training & development being so key to our overall success.

What is the current structure of your apprenticeship scheme, how do you recruit your apprentices and what qualifications do they apprentices achieve?

As we work so closely with the colleges they usually hand pick prime candidates for us from the years applications in addition to any cv’s we are sent directly. Each applicant has an initial interview which involves a walk around of the buildings to help give them a feel for exactly what we do & shows them an insight into the environment they could eventually be working in. Some really have no idea the type of apprenticeship that they are applying for, so we offer a short work experience, which often proves successful by helping them identify if its not for them before any time is wasted! Our apprentice courses over the various departments differ in length and qualification: bench hand joinery 18-24 month NVQ2, CNC engineering technician 42 month NVQ3, metal fabrication 18-36 NVQ3 , spray shop/finishers 18-36 month NVQ2 – these are just a handful of the dozens of opportunities/courses available.

How many apprentices do you employ each year and how have the apprentices developed their careers at EE Smith?
Each year we take on approximately 20 apprentices across our Factory HQ, London sites & CAD design office. After earning & learning for the first few years they develop a sense of belonging & start to really evolve by working to their strengths. This may lead to a change in department or in most cases a step up the ladder to work higher up the ranks. All of our current foremen, managers & team leaders once started as apprentices & we find this really motivates the younger generation, showing that hard work really does pay off!

What key partnerships make your scheme so successful?
We’ve built & invested so much time & energy into our relationships with the training providers, Leicester College in particular, as such a significant portion of our staff qualified with them. It’s essential to continually put pressure on the college for results to ensure they don’t get complacent. This can easily happen but the importance of our apprentices succeeding if far too great for us to be working with mediocre partners. Each of our colleges go through stringent checks to ensure they meet our high standards & we work alongside them, whether that be sitting in on tutorials, attending apprenticeship events or teaming up for promotional pieces, we have personal & strong relationships with all of them! (Leicester College, Didac, West London College, Activate Learning & Building Crafts College)

How have you ensured that you retain your apprentices?
Creating the right working environment is at the heart of retaining staff. Money can’t buy happiness & although there’s always similar businesses offering 10p more an hour in an attempt to poach our staff, what we’ve built at EES is a family & one that the apprentices grow into over the years. Approx. 70% of all staff have originally come from an EES apprenticeship, so whether they’re in their teens or in their 50’s everyone can find that level ground with each other as they’ve all experienced the same thing at some point which really helps balance out the defined hierarchy. We’re looking forward to doing a lot more social events once covid is over to show this terms recruits some well deserved appreciation after such a tough year!

You have recently taken part in a Women into Construction with event in London why did you get involved in this initiative?
This is something we’re really excited to be a part of & are passionate to break the stigma of women working within the construction industry. We teamed up with the initiative to offer an unemployed woman the opportunity to train & work with us for 2 weeks on our Knightsbridge site in London. This went so well that we have now offered her a permeant role on our Peninsula project! We really believe in offering as much equality as possible whilst recognising that the industry as a whole still has such a long way to go when it comes to breaking this old fashioned mindset. Just this month we have employed 7 new team members, 5 of which are women, which is a great first step in the right direction!

What are the main challenges in running an apprenticeship process in a business and what advice would you give a business that is looking to start employing apprentices?
The most important hurdle to overcome is the simple understanding that good things take time. So many businesses take on apprentices, put them in the corner & expect to have skilled craftsmen after 2 years. This will fail & it’s these employers who give apprenticeships a bad rep! You must have dedicated mentors for your apprentices, not only will they need in-depth training but also personal support; they’re fresh out of school & often need neutering & guidance as they navigate their way into adulthood. The more time you invest into them, the more successful the future will be – for them & the business!

What are the benefits to your business of running an apprenticeship scheme?
Having so much control over the skills our apprentices are taught is a huge benefit. Most of them have never worked before so we have the freedom & ability to mould them exactly how we want them to work. As our brand holds such a high quality amongst the industry it’s essential that all the staff are working to the same standard & streamlining this through our training has been the most efficient & effective way of achieving this.

How has your emphasis on skills training affected the type of projects that you can take on?
We’re in a very lucky position whereby our outstanding reputation over the last century continues to win us some of the most prestigious projects across London. Every year we take on bigger contracts than the last & I think this is possible because we don’t shy away from including & exposing our apprentices to this work. From the word go we involve our apprentices on live projects & this unparalleled level of expectation is then engrained in them for the years to come. In addition to our apprenticeship scheme we do find that it’s vital to research & invest in advanced training & new technology to ensure we’re always one step ahead & can fulfil our clients every needs.

As we begin to move out of the current pandemic restrictions how are do you view the next few years for EE Smith?

The next few years are already looking so positive for us & we’re ever grateful to operate in an industry that has continued to work through the challenging pandemic. We plan to invest in a significantly higher number of apprentices this year as we look to expand our factories capacity. We’ve also been awarded 3 new contracts each over £30Million which have filled our order book for the next 18 months, setting us up for the biggest financial year in our 124 year history. This alongside the completion of so many icon projects such as Battersea Power Station & flagship hotel The Londoner, we’re already looking forward to the long overdue celebration in store.

Contact EE Smith through BCFA Product Finder

The BCFA Product Finder is designed to find BCFA member companies and their products and services. There are four ways of searching either by product sector, market sector, company name by A-Z, or use the product search and enter the product or service name e.g. seating, to find companies offering seating and its variants.

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About Alys Bryan

Alys' experience as a furniture designer, along with her in-depth marketing knowledge, makes her uniquely placed to work with the BCFA as the Editor of Design Insider and run her marketing business, Method Communications.
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