Stuart Lee, Talent Director, Wolseley Group

There is probably no industry sector where apprenticeships and training have deeper roots than in the construction and property trades.

Since homes, offices and public buildings first needed experts to install, maintain and repair plumbing, heating and cooling systems, and deliver larger infrastructure projects, apprenticeships have been a clear route into a career and a valuable source of inbound talent for businesses. But developing fresh skills is not just an undertaking for young people starting out in the workplace - there is a need to support people through career transitions later in life too, particularly as some aspects of the trade become more technical and highly-skilled.

When you think of an apprentice, you may first imagine someone who has just finished secondary or further education and joins a small trade business to learn the skills required to be a fully-fledged professional, but the reality is that apprenticeships take many forms across all different shapes and sizes of business in our sector. The Wolseley Talent Guild, an initiative that develops skills, knowledge and behaviours both on-the-job and at dedicated training and learning centres across the country, is a case in point, focusing on the career development of existing colleagues. It was created in direct response to employee feedback asking for clearer career pathways and development methods.

In the trades, particularly plumbing and heating, both residential and commercial, we are seeing the onset of transformative technologies and new regulations that will require a generation of more expert and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)-minded people joining the profession, either at the outset of their careers or re-skilling part-way through.

Put simply, we need to match the best people for the opportunities that we have available, ensure they have fulfilling careers and that they have the right balance in their working lives, both when it comes to existing staff development and to attracting entry-level apprentices.

The opportunities that people perceive to be open to them when entering the trade or changing career path are typically far narrower than those that exist in reality, and the types of career path will only broaden as the skills required to support the plumbing, heating, cooling and water management sectors become more technical, and jobs become more complex. Equally, there are typically far broader paths open to colleagues already working in a business, and this has been a particular focus of the Talent Guild as we have built a programme of training and development activities that can accelerate careers and open up the options available.

The Talent Guild was launched in 2021 and has already been extended to cover 45 different types of apprenticeship, and seen 250 of our team pursue new professional qualifications. We know from engagement surveys that our people wanted this level of clearly-designed, career-long approach to development. And the early results have shown how positively it has been received, with overall staff engagement rates across our group up by 17 per cent already. It is rooted in absolute clarity to colleagues: here’s what it is and what’s required, put this in and you will get this back.

In rolling this out, we have been mindful that we need to offer the ‘whole package’: not only providing a good learning environment for individuals, but investing in talent development in ways that support our business objectives - including how we treat customers and suppliers, as well as across the responsibilities we have in operating a large business. This alignment is important not just to organisational success, but to fulfilling the career aspirations of the colleagues who take part. There are two main training programmes involved - ‘talent boosters’ delivered in-house and completed over the course of several days, and more extensive external qualifications, known as internal apprenticeships.  

The same drive underlies our approach to attracting and developing apprentices from outside Wolseley Group companies. The nature of entry-level apprenticeships is changing, with more specific and technical skills needed. Entry-level apprenticeships should offer not only a foot onto the first rung of a career ladder in the trades, but development of interpersonal skills, commercial savvy and a grounding in how to deal with multiple stakeholders every day in getting the job done.

At Wolseley, we’re aiming to ensure the right focus on talent development with a clear and structured programme that everyone can understand and see the benefits of, and a compelling partnership approach to investing time and energy in enhancing skills for mutual gain. It may sound simple, but rolling that out and gaining traction for the programme within such an extensive and complex business has taken a lot of careful planning and execution. We are at an early stage on that journey, but the initial signs have been overwhelmingly positive.

Talent Guild is about continual development of colleagues, of our teams, and of our business. We hope we can continue to make it as highly attractive for new joiners as to the colleagues who’ve been with us for years. In time, we also intend it to become a binding ingredient of our culture, and a shared platform for talent development group-wide.