People building the UK
PROFILES OF THOSE IN THE BRICKLAYING INDUSTRY
Roger Byrne, MD of Reussir Brickwork Contractors
Roger Byrne is a self-confessed brick addict. “I just love brick. Brick buildings are part of our culture and brick is a fantastic material. Not only is it amazingly durable and completely practical but it is also beautiful. It’s the range of colours in the fired clay and the flexibility of brick in use – there is so much potential for great design. I would honestly call myself an artist in fired clay and I never get tired of it.”
Not only is Roger a passionate enthusiast for the craft of the bricklayer, he is also a great example of the type of entrepreneurship that epitomises the bricklaying industry.
Starting as an apprentice, Roger worked with contractors learning his craft on site and getting a real understanding of the dynamics of the building industry. Seeing an opportunity for reliable and skilled contractors he started his own company in 1985 and now, with some 150 bricklayers employed at any one time, he runs a thriving company installing brickwork for all types of modern new building projects both residential and commercial.
His formula for success is simple: “If you have a reputation for good workmanship and reliable service then people come back to you. I have clients that we have worked with for years on projects that range from landmark contemporary buildings to large volume residential developments.”
Roger also understands the need to bring new people into the industry. His company is typical of members of the Association of Brickwork Contractors in its support of training – with an ongoing commitment to apprenticeships, taking on new apprentices every year.
Roger goes further than this, visiting individual colleges to talk to students and tutors alike to spread an understanding of the potential for brickworkers. “Let’s face it, we have to compete with all other industries and many young people simply do not have an up to date understanding of just how dynamic the building sector can be and of how far they can go with a bricklaying qualification behind them.”
It is not unusual to talk to senior people within Reussir and discover that they joined the company as a trainee and have continued to work with the business, progressing their career as far as they choose. Roger’s own belief in the future of his trade is evidenced by the fact that both his sons now also work in the business.
The career brothers
Reece Lewis, Quantity Surveyor, Swift Brickwork Contractors Ltd
Ryan Lewis, Project Manager, Swift Brickwork Contractors Ltd
Reece and Ryan Lewis have used their bricklaying qualifications to take them a long, long way. They have toured the world, worked on some amazing projects and are now both fully engaged with demanding careers in the fast-moving world that is the construction industry.
Ryan started the trend: he initially went to do some temporary work for Swift Brickwork Contractors Ltd after his GCSEs to earn some pocket money while he thought about his next steps and found it instantly appealing. “I really enjoyed being on site. It’s hard work but a laugh at the same time. The guys on site were great: there is lots of banter, no chance of taking yourself too seriously, and there’s also the sense that you are all in it together. The end result is a building that is only completed because every one of you has made their contribution.”
So impressed was Ryan with the job that he signed up for an apprenticeship, sponsored through his training by Swift Brickwork Contractors Ltd.
Reece followed the same path a couple of years later, motivated partly by a love of travel. “The bricklaying qualification is recognised worldwide. We both wanted to see a bit of the world so we decided to go and work in Australia. Trust me, bricklaying is much better paid than the bar work or office admin that many travellers have to do to fund their trip.
It was a great experience – I would recommend it to anyone. When we came back we both decided to continue in construction and see how far we could get.”
Both the Lewis brothers have ended up back at Swift Brickwork Contractors Ltd – a company that is very keen to encourage training and career progression. Ryan is now a Contract Manager responsible for delivering key projects for the company and loving the buzz of seeing a contract through from start to finish.
Having worked as a project manager for a large housebuilder, Reece re-joined Swift Brickwork Contractors Ltd when the opportunity to train as a Quantity Surveyor came up and is now responsible for pricing contracts and ensuring the company is both competitive and profitable in its work.
Both Lewis brothers are making full use of the career path open to them. As Ryan summarises: “That’s the great thing about bricklaying. It doesn’t stop when you finish your apprenticeship – there are so many options available to you.”
Or, as Reece points out: “The great thing about an apprenticeship is how far you take it is down to the individual. You get out as much as you put in.”
Steve Rotheram, MP for Liverpool Walton since 2010, started his working life with a bricklaying apprenticeship – learning skills that he believes have been fundamental to his success both as businessman and politician.
“When I was a kid I used to build shelters in the back garden from discarded building materials, mixing soil with water to make mud and putting that in between the bricks: so I think my enthusiasm for brick building started right there.”
With the encouragement of his father, Rotheram enrolled in a bricklaying apprenticeship, learning not only the technical skills of the trade but also a problem-solving approach to day-to-day challenges and a confidence that allowed him to progress.
Starting his own business – Rotheram Builders – at just 22 years old, Rotheram not only ran a successful contracting company but also found the time to complete a Masters Degree in Contemporary Urban Renaissance at John Moores University.
Passionate about learning, Rotheram went on to work as a Business Manager for the Learning and Skills Council before entering the political world as a Labour Councillor on Liverpool City Council in 2002. A spell as Lord Mayor of Liverpool was followed by election to parliament as MP for Liverpool Walton in 2010.
Reflecting on his career path, Rotheram highlights the advantages of his early training:
“An apprenticeship teaches you transferable skills that last a life time. The problem solving elements of construction are similar to those in politics. People recognise bricklayers putting a brick on top of a brick but actually it is much more technical. Every house or garden wall brings a whole myriad of obstacles that you have to overcome.
I’m absolutely convinced that the same sort of skills wouldn’t be available in a purely academic route. I’m not decrying university, its’ just very different to the problem solving that comes as a pre-requisite to being a tradesman.
I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that doing an apprenticeship is a fantastic opportunity. Under the current government, going to University is going to land you in £9,000 a year in debt, whereas with an apprenticeship you’re taught on the job, earning a wage and you’ll learn much more than just the trade you happened to pick.”
If you want proof that apprenticeships work look no further than Peter Wilcox. Peter started his apprenticeship straight from school 30 years ago as an encouraged 16-year-old and has used that as a platform to start his own company.
It’s his apprenticeship at an early age that paved the way for his successful bricklaying company and the reason why he continues to take on apprentices to this day. The latest, his son Charlie, is in his second year and he too has a promising future ahead of him in the UK construction industry.
Charlie is the latest of several apprentices that have passed through the apprenticeship programme at P Wilcox Brickworks and he won’t be the last. Although it’s only a small company, Peter believes it’s his responsibility to give back to the industry. He explains: “I feel morally responsible for the future of the construction industry. It’s up to me and others like me to teach the next generation of bricklayers. If we don’t then who will?”
At 16-years-old Peter made his way into N.E.S.C.O.T College on a two year apprenticeship contract, the same place his son would attend 30 years later. For Peter it was a great time to get into the construction sector and with the current UK construction market booming he believes encouragement needs to be placed on the next generation of apprentices to get involved.
“What happened after the recession of 2007 and the dip in the housing market was society stopped encouraging young kids to take up apprenticeships,” Peter said.
“This effectively starved the industry from the potential pool of young bricklayers and left a large gap in skilled labour now that the work is back. When I was young I was told that you could take your apprenticeship and the skills that you learned anywhere in the world.”
The college tutor
Christian Hatherall-Good teaches bricklaying to first and second year students- and will soon be running the third year also – at Brooklands College, Ashford Campus Surrey. Christian brims with enthusiasm when it comes to equipping the next generation of bricklayers with the skills they need to have brilliant careers within the industry.
Christian completed all 3 levels of brickwork at Swindon College and went on to study Pre HNC in construction studies at Guildford College, he then ran his own business working as a Sub-contractor for ten years before doing what he loves best, passing on his passion for the industry to the generations of tomorrow.
Post-recession the construction sector is starting to see green shoots emerging and Christian is one of those happy to see the industry back on track. “We have more and more people applying for courses in construction every year which is good to see. I believe faith has been restored and bricklaying is once again seen as a great career option.
“There’s no shortage of young people looking to get the trade mastered as there are so many different routes you can take with it; their enthusiasm is such a positive thing. One thing I will say though is it would be great to see more employers recognising this and investing in more young people, taking them on as work experience or apprentices. Ultimately, they will be taking the industry to where it needs to get to in the future.”
From years within the bricklaying industry Christian has been able to build up a repertoire of contacts that he can then link up to his students. It’s important for him to act as the go between for students and employers. “We really encourage our students to get work experience, a minimum of 30 hours is essential but we like to get them as much as possible. It’s invaluable.”
Christian has a great relationship with his students so he’s able to see their progression once they’ve completed their college education. He explained: “Students often pop in to say hi and let us know how they’re getting on. I’d say around 90% are in work that is brick related which is so good to see. Around 60% work for themselves which works well for them as they are able to enjoy the flexibility it brings.
“Apprenticeships and diplomas in construction are great. Not all kids are academic, some are more creative and prosper with more hands on occupations such as bricklaying. As long as there are employers that are willing to realise that they are the future of the industry and take them on and train them, then the future looks bright.”
Billy Wood is currently undertaking his Level 1 diploma in bricklaying at Brooklands College at the Ashford Campus, in Surrey. Having secured himself employed work alongside his course and with a brand new set of tools under his belt, Billy is set to embark on his career in bricklaying.
Billy always had a career working in the construction sector at the back of his mind as many of his family members work in skilled trades. He explained: “My Dad is a roofer and my brother is a multi-trade worker, it’s always seemed like a good option to me so I was excited to be able to try it for myself once I’d finished college.”
Billy started his Level 1 diploma in September 2014 and will go on to do his Level two in September this year. After completing Level 2 students are expected to have grasped the foundation knowledge of bricklaying, they are then given the option to study Level 3 which teaches more intricate and unusual brickwork.
Like many young people studying bricklaying for a diploma, Billy was encouraged by his college to gain real on site experience. It can be difficult to replicate a site at college so employed work is beneficial to students so they are able to develop further and find out if a career in bricklaying really is for them.
“I wrote to a few companies offering my services three days a week as I knew it would be really valuable to be able to put what I learned at college into practice. When the landscaping company I now work for got back to me, I was really excited to be able to learn in a real working environment and I love it.
I‘ve always liked getting my hands dirty, working outside and getting stuck in, so constructing walls in gardens ticked all the boxes. I get a lot of help from the guys I work for and everyone is friendly and happy to help me learn. It’s a good laugh as well, I’m really enjoying it.”
The independent bricklayer
Like many others, Andy reached that crux point when he had to decide what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He explained: “I’ve always liked the thought of going into construction; university was on the cards but the expense of it put me off. I took a gamble and haven’t ever looked back.
“I started my apprenticeship at Hammersmith College doing my onsite experience at Taylor Wimpey and absolutely loved it. After completing my apprenticeship I worked as a bricky for a while before going travelling around the world. What’s great about bricklaying is that it doesn’t tie you down, with a trade once you’ve mastered it, its always going to be there. I’d never have liked doing an office job, I like being outside getting stuck in.”
Like many self-employed bricklayers Andy likes working for himself because of the direct relationship between how much effort you put in and how much money you earn.
“When its just you that can be held responsible you work accordingly and its just you that receives the praise! I am paid by the amount of bricks laid and as I’m very experienced now I’m very fast.
“I’ve ended up learning other skills like putting up stud walls, a bit of plumbing etc. but brickwork is my bread and butter which is great because it’s the part I enjoy most. There’s something very satisfying about bricklaying and there’s such a vast range of projects you can get called to do.”
Andy wasn’t affected by the recession, in fact his business did remarkably well. Since he set up on his own in 1990 he’s always had work and stands by the statement that if you’re good at what you do this will never be an issue.
“I’m a one man band, I don’t advertise, all my work comes from word of mouth so you have to be good at what you do. I take pride in my work and get great satisfaction from it. I’d definitely recommend mastering a trade to young people today.”
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