Nick Jones visits the factory of ductwork contractor Hotchkiss to find out why a traditional approach to training has led to an impressive awards cabinet

Many contractors claim to have a proud history of in-house training. Few have the documents to back it up. George Humphreys, managing director of ductwork contractor Hotchkiss, does. “Recently we worked with the local chamber of commerce and gave a talk on apprenticeships. When we looked into the archives, we found this,” he says of the ageing blue contract on the desk in front of him.

“Eastbourne, 20 January 1911. We, Henry James Hotchkiss and Frederick William Hotchkiss do hereby agree to take Frederick George Scarlett as an apprentice for a term of four years from the 20th day of January 1911 to the 20th day of January 1915 and to teach the aforesaid Frederick George Scarlett a practical knowledge of engineering.”

It comes as no surprise that Humphreys should have been making speeches on apprenticeships. Training is at the heart of Hotchkiss’ philosophy, a fact that was recognised by four nominations and two prizes at Building’s Specialist Contractors Awards last year. This year, the firm has taken on 20 apprentices across a variety of disciplines and employs a total of 50 in its factory, head office and on site. One of its apprentices, Ben Harvey, recently won Apprentice Ductwork Installer of the Year at the National Training Awards. Another, Karen Neville, was shortlisted for the M&E apprentice award.

A company that’s hard to quit

Perhaps the biggest disincentive to training is the possibility that the trainee will be poached by a rival after they have completed their courses. Hotchkiss demonstrates that this is not necessarily going to be the case: between 80% and 90% of Hotchkiss’ employees in the office and factory have been through its apprentice system. Two key managers – Chris Beadle, the contracts director, and Andy Shelley, the works manager – have been with the company all their working lives.

For Humphreys this shows that money invested in training will pay dividends: “The trainee is a major investment. Once you’ve made that investment, you want to retain the staff.” Even though apprentices are not guaranteed a job on completion of their training, Humphreys describes it as “very unusual” for someone to go through the Hotchkiss system successfully and not be retained.

A comprehensive education

The Hotchkiss system allows apprentices to spend time in each of the firm’s departments. By the end, “you’ve put duct up, you’ve made duct, you’ve drawn duct”, says Humphreys. Trainee draftsperson and award nominee Karen Neville, 22, describes it as “the most comprehensive course I had seen”. Despite A-levels in English, law and drama, she wanted to learn a trade, and although she’d never heard of ductwork she was attracted by the high standard of training.

The trainee is a major investment. Once you’ve made that investment, you want to retain the staff

The apprenticeships include a structured three- or four-year syllabus and attendance at Croydon or Bexley College to gain a BTEC and HNC qualification in building services engineering. The firm has also introduced a tutorial system that allows two or three trainees to meet the firm’s training adviser every Friday. These are particularly useful as, according to Neville, college courses tend to be designed for consultants rather than ductwork specialists.

‘A very traditional apprenticeship’

Humphreys is a keen advocate of “very traditional apprenticeships”, which he defines as “when a skilled worker takes a young person under their wing”. He believes that this is at the heart of his company’s culture. He cites as an example senior surveyor Jason Lyon, who has been mentoring Nick Duvall, a trainee surveyor, for the past six months. “Jason knows the value of the system because he went through it himself,” Humphreys says.

Passing on experience is not solely the preserve of senior staff. All trainees visit local schools, and many have been interviewed on Eastbourne College’s local radio station. “We’re targeting 14- to 15-year-olds,” says Humphreys. “The relaunch of the modern apprenticeship scheme will help with people who don’t fit into the school–university route.”

Humphreys is clearly concerned that, for this year’s 20 apprenticeship vacancies, only 50 of those who applied met the firm’s selection criteria and believes that the modern apprenticeship will help to ensure that schemes such as Hotchkiss’ are not seen as second-class routes into employment. Humphreys’ “very traditional apprenticeship”, with its roots in the early 1900s, looks set for an exciting future.

Hotchkiss Ductwork

Location Eastbourne, East Sussex
Founded 1865
Size 450 staff
Areas of work The design, manufacture and installation of ductwork
Recent projects Heathrow Terminal 5 (it is on the BAA framework); the Treasury building in Great George St, Westminster; the HSBC building in Canary Wharf; the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey; the Swiss Re tower in the City of London; the Pfizer Building 500 in Sandwich, Kent; Paternoster Square in St Paul’s, London.