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Mansfield-based bespoke joinery business seeing success with NTU apprentice

A look at how NTU are supporting local SMEs with advice and support on recruiting higher and degree apprentices.

Graeme-Blakey and Sam Hickling from Realm Projects

Realm Projects, the employer

This support is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund

Through the GRADS for D2N2 project, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is supporting small and medium-sized enteprises (SMEs) based in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire with a package of free and subsidised support to help them identify their skills and talent needs, and benefit from graduate talent in the region.

Realm Projects are a Mansfield-based commercial joinery specialist company entering their twentieth year of business.

Having grown to a 90-person operation that works out of a 65,000 square foot manufacturing plant at Millennium Business Park, they provide bespoke solutions to everything from retail to restaurant and corporate spaces. They are also one of a small number of businesses in the country that is pre-qualified to carry out large value museum fit-outs.

Their co-founder and director, Graeme Blakey, explains that the joinery and manufacturing industry has been under pressure for a number of years because of economic issues and competition from overseas.

"We've had to find new and innovative ways to sharpen up our processes and find new markets, and this has been achieved through investment in our technology, our bespoke offer, and reputation for quality, on-time delivery and competitive pricing.

"However, it's been a challenge to get new people through the door. We haven't always seen the level of applications we'd like from younger people, but it's also difficult to recruit experienced people suited to the type of work we do, so for the past 16 years we've made apprentice a central part of our recruitment strategy."

Realm Projects initially started their conversation with NTU in 2018, hoping to take on a graduate in a quantity surveying role. While the timing wasn't quite right at that point, the conversation didn't end there, and in 2019 they started to explore the option of taking another apprentice.

Through the support available from the GRADS for D2N2 project, our Apprenticeships team conducted an office visit to undertake an organisational needs assessment and provide advice and information on the higher and degree apprenticeships offer.

Graeme said: "The apprentices we've taken in the past have been for bench joinery, so this was the first time we'd considered an apprentice for an office-based role.

"As an SME we often find that graduates or young people have the impression that they have to get experience or training with a really big company and don't realise the wider opportunities that are available to them by joining a smaller business.

"Many of our previous joinery apprentices have developed their career here and have progressed into technical drafting and project management roles, so there are lots of opportunities to progress."

Realm Projects at Millenium Business Park

Sam Hickling, the apprentice

18-year-old Sam joined Realm Projects in September 2019 and has settled into his role really well.

Sam completed A-levels in chemistry, biology and history earlier this year and originally went on to complete a UCAS application to study at university. However, after some further consideration, he decided that he didn't want to go down that route.

Throughout school he had done work experience with his dad who was an electrician, and it was this that gave him his first insights into the world of work, and the construction industry.

"I first came across quantity surveyors while out with my dad, and it seemed interesting to me. I knew that it was a very detail-oriented job, and that I was good at numbers and using information to make a conclusion, so started to look into it further.

"After doing some research, I decided that this was the route I wanted to go down and started to search for opportunities on the government's Find an Apprenticeship website."

After a few interviews elsewhere, he came across the Realm Projects role, put in an application and within weeks had been interviewed, accepted and was looking at starting his 5-year apprenticeship.

Sam is now three months in as Realm Projects' newest Junior Quantity Surveyor and Estimator. Since then he's had the opportunity to work on lots of different projects, including a complete re-fit of a Blues Kitchen, and sourcing some bespoke feline statues to sit outside the latest incarnation of The Kitty Cafe.

As part of Sam's ongoing development, he has also been assigned a chartered builder colleague as a mentor who is helping expose him to other aspects of the construction industry with the idea that this will give him a better insight into the work that Realm Projects does.

For others that may be thinking about going down this route, Sam is clear on its benefits.

"I would very strongly recommend doing an apprenticeship. After completing my A-levels, I decided that I wanted to prioritise working over further study, but this is an opportunity to do both.

"When working, you retain the information you learn a lot better as you can actually put it into practice.

"My apprenticeship will last for 5 years, and once that's completed NTU will also support me to achieve chartered status which is really important for this line of work."

What the future holds

Graeme says of the whole experience: "Since joining the business, Sam has made a really positive contribution and it's now down to us both to make the most of the opportunity.

"It's still early days but our experience to date of working with NTU – and with Sam – has been overwhelmingly positive and in that respect, it's already been a success.

"The way we view it, there's no end to what he can achieve both personally and professionally if he works hard and gets stuck in. He might even end up owning the business one day!"

Interested in accessing support as a local business?

To find out more about the ESF High Level Skills programme and the wider support that NTU can offer to local businesses, visit our website.

You can also contact us via any of the below channels:

* The GRADS for D2N2 project is part-funded by the European Social Fund and is part of the ESF High Level Skills programme. The programme is delivered by NTU as part of the High Level Skills consortium which also includes Derby College, Nottingham College, the University of Derby, and Nottingham City Council.

Supporting social mobility and widening participation

NTU is at the forefront of social mobility. The university recruits a quarter of its home undergraduates from households with a combined income of £15,000 or less, and has an impressive graduate employment rate. Four out of five graduates secure graduate entry jobs or training six months after graduation, and the GRADS for D2N2 programme is a contributing factor towards this.

The university is a signatory to the Social Mobility Pledge, and is also a co-lead on a national centre to research and develop best practices for universities on how to improve social mobility.

  • Notes for editors

    For press enquiries, please contact Joe Boultby-Ward, ESF Marketing Manager by email or on +44 (0)115 878 8899.

    • The High Level Skills programme is part-funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) and is made up of two complementary projects – Priority Skills for D2N2 SMEs, and GRADS for D2N2.
    • The projects have received £2,201,163 (Priority Skills for D2N2 SMEs) and £7,360,994 (GRADS for D2N2) of funding from the European Social Fund as part of the 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme in England.
    • The Department for Work and Pensions (and in London the intermediate body Greater London Authority) is the Managing Authority for the English European Social Fund programme.
    • Established by the European Union, the European Social Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support skills development, employment and job creation, social inclusion and local community regenerations.
    • For more information, visit https://www.gov.uk/european-growth-funding.

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