Apprentices prove to be Black Steel Mobile’s secret weapon

May 3, 2024

Attracting and retaining talent is an industry-wide challenge – but for Auckland-based steel fabricators Black Steel Mobile (BSM), an innovative apprenticeship programme holds the key to success.

Developed as an antidote to a national shortage of fabricators, the programme has created a sustainable talent pipeline that drives organisational performance. As BSM General Manager Steve Powell explains, there’s more to the initiative than plugging skills gaps.

“Our biggest roadblock to getting where we wanted to go was a lack of fabricators, so we thought, let’s try apprenticeships,” says Steve. “That was back in 2016,and now we’ve got five fully qualified fabricators and another eight at various stages of their apprenticeships. We’ve only had to hire one fabricator outside the organisation in the last four years.”

For a company with just 38 staff, supporting this number of apprentices is almost unheard of, and so is their apprenticeship completion rate, with five of BSM’s first seven apprentices successfully qualified and working within the company. Investing in staff to this degree takes a huge commitment, but Steve and his team wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We are not just training steel fabricators; we are training for the future. We’re passionate about training young people who are not suited for traditional education institutions – in fact, upskilling these kids is one of the most important things we do. We’re not doing this for us; we see disparate educational outcomes in traditional education. We can’t fix that, but we can give people who want to put in the effort an opportunity to be better today than they were yesterday. For us, it’s enough to know that we’re positively impacting people’s lives by equipping them with transferable skills they can take anywhere in the world.”

Competenz plays a pivotal role in the transformation, providing BSM with regular and consistent updates on each apprentice's progress and offering ongoing support, advice, and mentorship.

“We have a lot of good people, both within BSM and Competenz , who are all working together to support these young apprentices. We’re all fully invested in getting them over the line.”

Upskilling through Competenz can increase productivity, job satisfaction, innovation and staff retention, and Steve has seen the results first-hand.

“Once someone starts training, they progress every year, and their quality of work and efficiency increase. Our apprenticeship programme plays a big part in our low staff turnover and high staff retention—and we couldn’t achieve any of that without Competenz.”

A little different than most apprenticeship programmes, BSM’s model is grounded in support, and Fabrication Manager Matt Adams says this support is the cornerstone of their success.

“Everyone I’d talked to who’d ever done an apprenticeship wished they’d got more support from their employer,” says Matt. “One of our guys had dropped out of two other apprenticeships before he came to us. He knew he was good with his hands but didn’t get the support he needed to complete, yet now he’s a fully qualified fabricator. Some guys just won’t get there using traditional methods, so we’ve invested in our own.”

These unique methods include an initial six—12 month stint as a Trades Assistant before beginning the apprenticeship. This pre-apprenticeship process identifies whether the employee has the right attitude and is a ‘stay-ability’ check. Once the apprenticeships start, weekly ‘learning habitat’ sessions follow, enabling apprentices to learn from each other.

“It means the newer ones don’t feel like they’re staring into an abyss; they can see a visible career pathway that people they know are already climbing. Now, we have our qualified apprentices training our new apprentices, so this accumulation of experience is passed down within the organisation. That’s pretty cool.”

Apprentices are encouraged to enter Steel Construction New Zealand Apprentice of the Year competitions, and once they gain their qualification, their efforts are recognised and celebrated with work barbecues, social media shout outs, and around $5,000 worth of trade-related gifts from BSM.

“We want them to know how proud of them we are - it adds impetus to the whole process.”

Competenz Regional Manager Fiona Horne says this level of apprenticeship support helps BSM stand out.

“The BSM team is super passionate about on-job upskilling, celebrating success, and cultivating a workplace culture to be really proud of,” she says.

“This is a business that truly understands the value of investing in their people.”