“Offering Apprenticeships to Teenagers Provides Hope”

Areas of Manchester have some of the highest rates of children living in poverty than anywhere else in the UK. Offering apprenticeships to teenagers provides hope, says H20 Drywall Systems’ director Simon O’Brien

Simon O’Brien and the H20 Drywall Systems team won The Christie Charity World Cup in 2010

The number of opportunities available to young people in parts of Manchester are limited, according to Simon O’Brien. As a local business owner and resident, it is something he is faced with everyday. According to Save the Children UK, there are areas of Manchester where more than a quarter of the children live in severe poverty.

When O’Brien left school at 16, he joined his father’s plastering company as an apprentice for five years. He has now been in the trade for nearly three decades, and is now the director of H20 Drywall Systems – a company with an estimated turnover of £300,000. In 2014, the company will be turning over £1m.

O’Brien’s portfolio has expanded to include huge and exciting projects, including vital work on the largest cancer ward in Europe for Manchester’s The Christie NHS Foundation Trust. His team of subcontractors increases all the time, and crucially, he offers apprenticeships to school leavers eager for hands-on experience in the construction industry – just like his own father did for him.

O’Brien says the industry has changed considerably from when he was an apprentice, and teenagers are simply not being offered the same opportunities today. He currently employs two apprentices a year, offering on-site training with the objective of retaining them on a longer term basis within the company.

“Apprenticeships were readily available when I left school, but at the moment they’re not,” he says. “(Now) there is quite a big gap in construction where young people didn’t come into the industry. You’ve got lads coming towards the end of their careers around 50-60, and a big gap that needs filling.”

The days of the five year apprenticeship is now a thing of the past. O’Brien employs apprentices on the current two-year National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) scheme. Companies like H20 Drywall Systems are eligible for grants from the government to help get school leavers into work.

“We are a big believer in local work for local lads, and there isn’t a lot (of companies) that do it,” he says. “The industry is quite fast paced and you need to spend time with these lads.”

O’Brien believes apprenticeships are vital in affecting those parts of the community which offer scant opportunities for children to escape poverty. Learning a trade offers work, support and the chance to feel part of the community. But not every company can offer these opportunities, and O’Brien acknowledges an overwhelming surplus in supply over demand.

“Construction is picking up, and its on the better side of recovery,” he says. “I use 25 subcontractors, and that will double next year. I live in Manchester and when I drive into the city centre and see the high rise frames going up, it’s a telltale sign of things being on the up.”

This upward trend over the past three to four years has seen O’Brien take his company from a one man band to a limited company, securing work for huge clients including national restaurant chains and hospitals. It is his work with The Christie which is most rewarding, having just been tasked with creating the largest cancer hospital in Europe by 2015.

O’Brien has maintained close links with The Christie ever since his father was diagnosed with cancer – a disease which affects one in three people. As part of his ongoing fundraising activities, O’Brien has organised a charity cycle ride from London to Paris for April 2014. He sees assisting with apprenticeships and local charities as an extension to his work – in helping to build better connections between people and places, and giving something back to the community.

H20 Drywall Systems is working towards a loan request of £60,000 to help fund the company’s future expansion plans. Lend to H2O Drywall Systems 

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