Championing lifelong learning in the Southern Uplands

Vocational training in the construction industry. Picture shows head and shoulders image of Ian Wells of Ian Wells Consultancy, construction training specialists based in Dumfries & Galloway

I’m delighted, and more than a little flattered, to be invited to share this article via Esteem Training’s social media channels. We share a collective passion for helping industry professionals harness the power of training to reach beyond what they might have believed to be the limits of their abilities then watch them grow and develop as individuals, talented construction teams and business owners. 

The path that leads us to find our passion in life can occasionally feel long and winding, with many a twist and turn.  My personal evolution towards becoming a champion for vocational training in the construction industry came about following a rewarding 20+ year career as a bricklayer, running a busy family-owned building business with my father and brothers in Dumfries & Galloway. 

Scotland’s construction industry is filled to the brim with committed, talented professionals who take a gruff, sometimes blunt, no-nonsense approach to getting the job finished on time and on budget. We work in tightly-knit teams with plenty of easy banter yet not always the same degree of positive reinforcement for a job well done. As a result, we can sometimes find experienced tradespeople, with decades of valuable expertise, feeling hindered in their career progression.  

With few formally-recognised qualifications, these skilled tradespeople struggle to secure coveted CSCS cards (Construction Skills Certification Scheme), specifically the Gold and Black supervisory and management level accreditation which can help them gain access to bigger contracts operating on large sites. And that’s where I believe that vocational training really comes into its own.  Never more so than in my own ‘patch’ of Dumfries & Galloway where our rural economy comprises a large geographical territory peopled by widely-dispersed squads of three and four people. 

A region packed with talent and determination

Dumfries & Galloway born and bred, I fully appreciate the unique pressures that come with working in a rural economy. I’m equally aware of the depth of talent and steely determination exhibited by world-class achievers with connections to our region – from engineer Thomas Telford and historian Thomas Carlyle, to scientist James Clerk Maxwell. Ditto racing driver David Coulthard, actor Sam Heughan, superstar DJ Calvin Harris, and poets William Nicholson: the Bard of Galloway and Scotland’s national Bard: Robert Burns. 

So much raw talent to be uncovered and nurtured, thus my father’s passing in 1989 crystallised a long-held desire to share what I had learned in our family business with the close-knit construction community of Dumfries & Galloway, planning to help them realise their true potential while expanding personal and commercial horizons. To that end, I joined CITB (The Construction Industry Training Board), initially in a Training Advisory role focused on the Dumfries & Galloway region which later expanded to also encompass Ayrshire. I remained with that team until 2016 when I left to establish my strategic training advisory business: Ian Wells Consultancy. 

Much discussion has centred around the pressing need to upskill Scotland’s workforce across a swathe of industry sectors – a lofty ambition, not without its challenges. Many Scots work for small or medium-sized companies where the focus is often, not unreasonably, on delivering the work in hand as well as finding new projects to keep the business afloat, never more so than during the last 18 months of pandemic-oriented upheaval. Training budgets are often stretched, or occasionally non-existent. It therefore makes sense for Government to provide sources of funding coupled with the infrastructure to help bring about this transformational training both now and in future.  

A hub for collaboration and shared learning

Yet this is not a new problem. In 2001, while with CITB, I established the Dumfries & Galloway Construction Training Group (DGCTG) to provide precisely this type of resource for local construction businesses – a friendly networking hub, and source for high quality training opportunities geared towards fostering career and personal development. Now a thriving independent organisation, DGCTG has 130+ member companies: each one invited to join based on their commitment to invest in training. They’re an amazing and talented group of construction professionals, comprising predominantly 3-4 person teams operating from the Mull of Galloway to Langholm in the Scottish Borders, and Gretna Green. All have carved out successful businesses based on quality workmanship and exceptional customer service. 

In fact the Dumfries & Galloway model works so well that I set up a ‘sister’ organisation, the Ayrshire Construction Training Group which continues to this day.  

You may have gathered that I believe strongly that Governments alone cannot provide the ‘arms and legs’ to reach out into individual communities and businesses keen to train their teams, yet often kept busy simply trying to survive amid changing market conditions. And so for me, close collaboration and strong personal relationships remain key to ensuring that the best possible construction industry training is delivered to those most in need.  

The power of partnerships

By extension, this means forging strategic partnerships based on mutual trust with high quality, even award-winning, training providers who can readily meet those training requirements. Companies that consistently deliver supportive, funded training involving seasoned industry practitioners focused on mentoring candidates to help them develop practical skills that boost confidence and elevate performance in everyday working lives.  

Which is precisely how my relationship with Esteem Training came about since their team has an enviable 90+% candidate success rate for delivering SVQs (Scottish Vocational Qualifications) in construction supervisory and management level courses under Skills Development Scotland’s funded Modern Apprenticeship (MA) programme. CITB can also provide much-needed financial support for small companies with stretched budgets, through their Skills and Training Fund, Qualifications Grants and Apprenticeship Grants. I project manage all such funding applications, as well as optimum course identification and training recommendations, for my clients. 

I’ve been told I’m a polite, though very hard sell for companies trying to join my cohort of trusted professional partners. You need go no further than Andy Findlater, Esteem Training’s friendly and doggedly persistent Business Development Manager. Andy was in contact for well over a year before I agreed to meet with Martina Höfner, Esteem’s Operations Director to explore a potentially mutually-beneficial working partnership.  

That meeting took place a little over a year ago and continues to deliver multiple mutual benefits. More than 100 Dumfries & Galloway-based workers from over 30 construction companies have secured SVQs in occupational work supervision and construction site supervision, supported and mentored throughout by Esteem Training’s experienced team of assessors. 

Talented candidates achieving new heights

Feedback from candidates has been universally positive, and – more to the point – many are now well on their way to securing CSCS Black or Gold cards, with confidence levels flying high. Seeing such expanded horizons opening up for candidates who may have felt they’d been too long out of the learning environment or worse, that they might have missed the boat career-wise, gives me immense satisfaction. 

Ideally, I’d like to see more high-quality, locally-based construction training provision not only within Dumfries & Galloway but across all regions of Scotland, and I believe that colleges have a role to play in this. Currently, we’re reasonably well served locally for entry level training though not for the funded supervisory and management qualifications at which Esteem Training excels. 

Having found a committed, professional training partner in Esteem Training, we’ll continue to work together well into the future. I’ll still occasionally choose to sit in on induction and training sessions for new candidates whom I’ve referred to Andy, Martina and the team.  

I especially like Esteem Training’s very personal approach to every aspect of their work. It’s heartening to witness their team of assessors actively invest in developing one-to-one relationships with candidates, including identifying and addressing any additional support needs. That approach reflects my own company’s wraparound support, geared towards freeing my clients up to take the plunge and identify efficient new ways of working, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be supported on their journey to achieve well above what they might previously have believed to have been beyond their reach.