Charlotte Roseby discovers the advantages of group training – for employers, apprentices and the industry as a whole – and discovers that hosting an apprentice from Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria (PAV) has real benefits for business.

As part of the group training scheme, PAV selects and employs apprentices then places them with host employers. The scheme provides employers with enthusiastic, motivated first to fourth year plumbing apprentices for short and long-term placements, without the commitment of employing them.

“We manage both the contract and the apprentice, leaving employers free to do what they do best: run their plumbing businesses,” says Pancho.

Group training: designed to make employment easy

“Group training” is an alternative employment arrangement that was developed in the early 1980s by the building and automotive sectors – with support from government agencies – largely in response to the needs of many small businesses that found it di cult to employ apprentices for the full duration of their apprenticeship.

The particular focus originally was the building, construction and automotive industries, given the unpredictable nature of their work cycles. At that time there was also a real concern about future skill shortages for the industry. The Master Plumbers Group Training Scheme, now PAV, was established as a group training organisation by the Master Plumbers in 1981 to meet the growing needs of the plumbing industry.

PAV is the legal employer of the apprentices. All the normal costs associated with taking on an employee, such as wages, allowances, superannuation, workers’ compensation, sick pay, holiday pay and other employment benefits are rolled into

an hourly rate and charged to the host employer. (Group training organisations, as not-for-pro t bodies, also receive government funding to enable them to do this.) They now have 192 apprentices.

Employers don’t have the commitment of taking on an apprentice for the full four years, says Pancho. They have the flexibility of periods as small as a week to two years, depending on their workload. Some of the companies don’t employ any apprentices at all; they get all their apprentices from PAV.

“It really cuts down on their admin work, not having to administer the paperwork associated with employing an apprentice. We specialise in that. We provide a flexible workforce whenever they need it.”

PAV certainly takes away a lot of what we all know are the particular hassles of employment: recruiting and selecting apprentices, managing training (both on and on-the-job), and making sure that apprentices complete the training contract.

PAV provide their apprentices with ongoing support. PAV Field Officers, Andrew Delidakis and Steve Marks look after all the PAV  apprentices, making onsite visits, monitoring their performance both at work and in their off site training, and providing that extra ‘pastoral care’ – all to make sure the apprentices get through the whole process with flying colours.

Allstaff Airconditioning: filling the gaps

Master Plumbers, Allstaff Airconditioning, are about to mark their 40th year as market leaders in the mechanical services industry, “so we know what we’re doing, and know what we need,” says Rod Coleman, Labour Manager at Allstaff. And what they need, is apprentices to fill their short-term employment gaps.

Since its inception in May 1975, the national group of companies has grown to a team of over 300 staff across the country, working on large-scale infrastructure projects. Current major projects in Victoria include Eastland Shopping Centre, the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, and 150 Collins Street. Their plumbers specialise in skills like steel and copper fabrication, first class sheet metal, steel welding, rigging and specialised refrigeration.

Rod and Allstaff Airconditioning engage the services of PAV to host apprentices as they are needed on projects, according to demand – and what they do is a mark of their integrity. “We’re proudly not a hiring and ring company,” says Rod, “We don’t want to hire someone and then have to let them go after three months. That’s why people really want to work for us.”

Rod manages a huge number of staff: All staff has 100 plumbers currently out on site – and that number can grow to 150. Of their 100 plumbers, 10 are their own apprentices and 11 are Master Plumber’s apprentices.

Does it work having a mix of their own apprentices and Master Plumbers apprentices? Emphatically yes, says Rod. “It’s a really good mix. The apprentices get to know us, and they get exposure to mechanical services work and pick up new skills. They all work really well  together. And why wouldn’t they? We are all working together towards a common goal,” says Rod.

Rod thinks Pancho and his crew “do a sensational job. PAV look after their apprentices really well, and then we look after them well when they come to us.”

Master Plumber’s apprentices really fill the gap in the industry, says Rob, and it’s such an important way they support the industry as a whole.

Complete Plumbing: completing their workforce

Master Plumbers, Complete Plumbing Contracting, have been employing PAV apprentices for 10 years now.

Their company employs over 80 staff, working on many of Melbourne’s biggest new commercial and residential construction ventures, as well as industrial and institutional projects.

Their extensive portfolio makes almost eye-watering reading. Among many others, they are currently plumbing the Marco Apartments in Southbank, which is 435 apartments in two towers up to 40 stories each; Vision Tower Apartments: 564 apartments over 71 levels in Elizabeth St Melbourne; and the Yorkshire Brewery development in Collingwood: 356 apartments in ve buildings. In the commercial area they are working on the 140-suite Brady Hotel, the Avenue Shopping Centre and the UNIBIC biscuit manufacturing plant of 15,000 square metres.

To help get the job done, they currently have 10 Master Plumber’s apprentices. “That’s roughly 10 percent of our onsite sta ,” says Harley Young, General Sta Manager of Complete Plumbing. “Our workload is quite cyclic. Our contracts could be 12 months to two years. When we’re busier than normal, it makes sense to top-up our own staff with Master Plumbers apprentices. It gives us flexibility – that’s the key word.”

On the large Yorkshire Brewery project site in Collingwood they have four Master Plumber’s apprentices out of 32 staff. At the moment, the apprentices are busy roughing-in the services.

“They’re doing the things apprentices should be doing: installing pipework and learning the fundamentals of plumbing,” says Harley. “We don’t like to use apprentices as just labour hire; we like to teach them the skills of plumbing. They are definitely not there to sweep up. They’re being utilised. Some of these guys have already had good experience in other trades or roles working with their hands, it’s easy to get them up to speed.”

If the apprentices don’t have the exact skills to t the job, Harley says, they sometimes swap over staff to find someone whose skillset matches the current project.

With 10 years of apprentices on the books, Harley is deeply impressed with the quality of the apprentices.

“We see them over a period up to 12 months. It’s good to see them grow and develop. The quality we’re seeing now is better than we have ever seeing before.” To what does Harley attribute the success? “It gets back to PAV’s employment practices. Whether it’s a gut feeling or their processes.”

Dream apprenticeship: dream apprentice

Stephan Putter is a first-year apprentice, employed by PAV and hosted by Complete Plumbing, who couldn’t be happier with his recent change of career into plumbing.

Straight out of school, Stephan worked for seven years as a civil technician, dealing with big pipelines. He then moved “into the agricultural side of things” in the thoroughbred industry. Stephan was assistant stud manager, and managed a few farms in the Seymour area, until circumstances changed. “We needed to move closer to the city for the kids and my wife’s work. And I wanted something familiar.”

He says becoming a plumber was easy and it sounds like he’s rather a natural. “I enjoyed pipeline work and I was good at it. I see plumbing as a very clean type of work. It was easy to decide.”

He became an apprentice with PAV after doing a pre-apprenticeship at PICAC. He is one very determined apprentice, happy to be studying again – though starting his pre-apprenticeship did give him pause for thought: “Becoming a student again was a bit of an adjustment but I had mentally prepared myself to ... get back to basics. Learning from other people is very important so it was important to have the right mindset to do it. And I did, and I found it easy.”

He also had the challenge of moving to the city at the same time, giving up the clear morning air and the horses for peak hour and city streets.

“I’m a country boy, so it was a bit of an adjustment. My wife found it easy. But I’ve adjusted now and really taken to it.”

Stephan has been with Complete Plumbing since November and is now working on a new residential construction. He’s discovered he particularly loves gas and copper work, “but I’ll take on anything.

“It’s a really good company to work for. They’re always ready to teach, and give you a go. They give you a job only if you’re capable, then let you get on with it.”

“The most important thing to apprentices is to give them a fair go, and to give us opportunities to prove ourselves, then everyone gets the reward.”

“I’m very happy. I’m living the dream at this stage.”

The “elite of apprentices”

Part of PAV’s key to success is a stringent, highly selective hiring approach. Their apprentices are handpicked, and Pancho is continually proud of the results.

“We want these apprentices to be able to hit the ground running. Our plumbing apprentices are very impressive, very early on in their placement. They are the elite bunch of apprentices.”

Pancho looks for particular characteristics in a potential candidate; and after his years in the job he can pick them. “We want somebody who has a real passion to become a plumber,” he says.

They also look for that something extra in their apprentices – something that will definitely help them along the way: people skills.

“We look for apprentices with very good people skills because, after all,” says Pancho, “these apprentices might be working in a different workplace from week to week. If they don’t look forward to that, they won’t be successful.”

“We induct our apprentices very well; we provide them with protective clothing and tools, so when they hit the job site they look very professional. They have a professional attitude as well.”

Apprentices with life experience

A relatively recent, positive, development is the increased number of adult apprentices being employed across the industry. PAV has many adult apprentices who have come to plumbing as a change of career.

“I don’t think any trade can fill their requirements. The quality juniors aren’t there in huge numbers – they’re being attracted to other industries other than trades, like IT.”

Although the move to employ ‘second career’ apprentices originated from necessity – a shortage of juniors – it’s been a rewarding, very constructive change for the industry, with adults becoming much sought-after apprentices.

“They’re very focused,” says Pancho. “We’re all bene ting from their maturity, life skills and people skills.”

Just as you might imagine, training adults has also made a positive difference in the classroom setting. There’s definitely been a positive change in dynamic, says Pancho. The adult apprentices are a great influence, not only encouraging the juniors to dedicate themselves to learning, but to also instil a great work ethic and an appreciation for their opportunity. “A lot of the older blokes have already been working so hard, and they’ve probably taken a pay cut to become an apprentice, so the younger guys start to really appreciate how lucky they are to have such a good start in a good career at such a young age... they work harder.”

Harley Young from Complete Plumbing thinks it’s a great move. As well as apprentices in their mid-twenties, he’s just started hosting a Master Plumbers apprentice who is 55.

“We’re now seeing a range of people. It‘s great to see PAV giving people an opportunity, and it’s great to see people retraining themselves. And that’s great for us, because we get someone with life experience.” To employers like Harley, life experience often more than makes up for the lack of work experience.

The added benefit, according to Harley, is that many adult apprentices have had a wide range of work experiences and many have run their own businesses. “That means they have been on the other side of the fence,” says Harley. “They understand the trials and tribulations of what we go through as employers. We can work together on a common goal.”

Creating well-rounded plumbers

Harley not only believes employing apprentices through PAV makes good business sense for employers; he believes it ultimately creates good, well-rounded, qualified plumbers: “It’s good for the guys getting a different mix of skillsets; it gives them great skills.”

“There’s de nitely huge bene ts to the apprentices,” agrees Pancho. “Many plumbing companies specialise now, so apprentices will learn one or two, or at the best three types of plumbing. With us, apprentices get experience in domestic, maintenance, construction, commercial high-rise buildings, air conditioning, sanitary and roo ng. They wouldn’t get that with one employer.”

Many of Pancho’s apprentices are now fully qualified and have become managers, onsite foremen or they have their own businesses. They keep in touch and now Pancho provides many of his former apprentices with apprentices. “Because I know them so well, I really cherish the relationships.” Pancho singles out Chris Wilkinson who was a PAV apprentice – and a high achiever. “He was an apprentice of ours who won just about every award going,” laughs Pancho. “Now he’s got a domestic plumbing business and it’s great to see him evolve, and also to have a laugh with him and reassure him if he gets stressed out.”

Pancho also appreciates the long- standing relationships with his clients – the host employers. Some he’s never met in person, but gets to know them over the phone, sometimes over years. “We get to know them very well,” he says. “Sometimes even over 20 years.”
As Pancho and his team get to know a company, they are able to precisely match up an apprentice suited to, not only the skills required, but the company culture. “They ring us because they trust us.”

“It’s a shame the industry is so pressurised. It’s a volatile industry. But group training is going to be the way of the future.”

What are the benefits of hiring a PAV apprentice?

Motivated, hand-picked apprentices: the comprehensive recruitment process, along with pre-employment training, ensures that you have access to motivated, skilled apprentices.

Flexibility: hire from one week, to the full term of an apprenticeship, based on your labour needs.

Reduce your paperwork: PAV take care of all employer-associated administration including payment of wages and superannuation, Work Cover, supply of personal protective equipment, enrolment at trade school and completion of the training agreement.

Cost-effective: the apprentice fills in a weekly time sheet so you only pay for hours worked.

Extensive support: PAV staff manages all the training and skill development. They monitor the apprentice’s performance within your workplace, ensuring a successful placement.