Cortexa's Mark Parrish.

Brave new world

Published:  25 August, 2010

The way merchants can train from apprentice to senior management is getting a make-over. Lisa Arcangeli reports.

Training is big business. For the Builders’ Merchants Federation it is worth more than £750 000 a year.

Training is also vastly important as the industry emerges from a long, deep and nasty recession, to ensure the people you employ are as effective as they can be to secure and retain business.

In the last 12 months, the BMF has seen over 250 people go through its apprenticeship scheme. “People have held their breath for the last year and now there is a need to invest,” says Chris Pateman, the Federation’s managing director.

The market, he says, is starting to come back, purely because people have held off for so long. He cites the Midlands Region. “There was around £7000 in their account from the old regional conferences we used to run and they decided to use it for a regional training group for members in the area.

“We were able to put together 10 days’ worth of training and asked the group what they wanted,” Mr Pateman relates, “and within five minutes all the spaces were filled.” These, he believes, are the sure signs of a rapidly re-awakening market.

Over the years, manufacturers have been developing and launching their own indigenous courses, but what was lacking was consistency across the whole portfolio of learning.

BMF decided it would be a good idea to pull together all the pieces of discreet learning into a syllabus, create a coursebook to ensure what learned is relevant to the products that are stocked in a merchant’s particular branch and examine that workbook and give the candidates a BMF or a City & Guilds qualification.

“People who have already undertaken this training elsewhere will be able to fill any gaps between these ‘discreet’ items of learning through the BMF’s courses. This will give candidates the confidence to be able to talk with some confidence about the products,” says Mr Pateman.

“A great deal of learning can be developed cost-efficiently if we make use of trade associations,” Mr Pateman says. It would also give many of the manufacturers’ trade associations a new lease on life, he believes.

Training can be life-changing. It can make a huge difference not only to the individuals who benefit from training, but also to a merchant’s business.

“It also helps our industry’s ability to talk to government and ask them not to cut spending on training,” says Mr Pateman. “We have already won round one with the cut of Train to Gain, which was a valueless scheme. The Government has now sensibly invested the money back into apprenticeships,” he says.

Merchants using Cortexa’s e-learning systems see a low-cost entry to a high value training with instant access to a large amount of content and the ability to build their own content.

Cortexa’s web system is the brainchild of Mark Parrish, an engineer, who spent 10 years in the military.

He left the Army in the 1980s to work as a consultant.

One of his first clients was the BSS Group. As a result of this work, he was offered the role of human resources director within that organisation and as part of that role, he was responsible for learning and development across the Group.

BMF's Chris Pateman.

Mr Parrish left BSS in 1995 to go back to consulting, but has remained in the building supply chain ever since.

Twyford, Mira, Glow-worm and Yorkshire Fittings were all early investors in what was to become a construction industry learning ecosystem,” he comments. “We put these courses into a framework that allowed the training to be delivered online.”

The company’s first merchant customer was the Graham Group, where the training was received enthusiastically.

By 2006, the training had spread into heavyside manufacturers. “We went live across the entire Jewson network in that year,” he recalls. Buildbase and subsequently the Grafton Group came onboard as did PTS in 2009.

“If you imagine that our web framework is like a massive virtual ‘lending library’, we take manufacturer’s traditional classroom training and convert it into highly interactive trackable content and put it into that library.

Users can then access the library through a customised entrance and draw those materials out,” he explains.

Each student has their own unique account login. It tracks their learning so that they can be allocated courses, can access the knowledge base and draw down data and documents, look at videos and eventually print out certificates.

“As a manager in a merchant you can assign courses to people in your organsation, you can create branches and reporting structures to match those of your organisation. From a single point, you can manage your entire branch network in terms or learning, development and training records.”

Currently, independent merchants can access the content through the NMBS Academy or can go directly through Cortexa.

The Builders’ Merchants Federation is in talks with Cortexa to undertake a major piece of work over the next two to three years to bring in best practice into the framework that the BMF can deliver.

The likelihood is that the NMBS Academy will transfer across to the BMF and a number of things will be layered on top of what NMBS offers.

There will be some accreditation and ‘blended programmes’ for people doing face-to-face training. This, says Mr Parrish, will provide a slightly broader training management system.

“Individuals who subscribe to the NMBS Academy will retain all their rights and their structures and nothing will change for them, other than perhaps some branding,” he adds.

Cortexa currently has content online from over 80 manufacturers. This encompasses timber through to heavyside building materials, plumbing and heating, windows and some roofing.

This article was first published in Builders' Merchant News June 2010 edition.

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