At the recent BMI Redland and Icopal Apprentice of the Year competition, a surprising number of finalists were former service personnel. Professional Builder met up with three of them to talk about their experiences and how building – roofing in particular – has given them a new lease of life.
As the media has told us, one of the consequence of nearly 30 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan is an increased number of service personnel returning to civilian life with wounds, both hidden and visible; or just exhausted from the relentless operational touring.
Traditionally, service personnel might rely on the ‘Armed Forces Covenant’, which the Government describes as “a promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly”.
It’s a respectable aspiration, yet one that does not always deliver in practice. For example, veterans, especially those with mental health problems, form a disproportionate part of the UK’s homeless population.
With the country keen to help its service personnel, the construction industry is also committed to playing its part. With roofing thought to be a particularly good choice for veterans as it’s active, requires a robustness of spirit and body and, on a good day, a high degree of self-reliance and initiative. As a result, the industry is trying to tempt such people into work.
One example of how the industry is working to attract service personnel was October’s Forces in Construction Insight Day, organised by the CITB, Coleg Cambria, Kier and CTP. Hosted by Coleg Cambria, the event was backed by a wealth of construction companies including BMI, the only manufacturer in attendance; and showcased employment, career and training opportunities.
Evidence of the impact of these initiatives is one BMI Apprentice of the Year finalist, Ceiran Peel-Price: having taken to roofing with gusto. When he joined the army, it was a dream come true as he had always wanted to be part of the forces. However, after injuring his knees while on active duty, he could no longer serve. Roofing proved his salvation and played to the strengths he developed in his four-year spell as a tank gunner. Ceiran’s injured knee required four operations and it was while recuperating from one operation, and waiting for another, that he got involved in roofing.
Ceiran and his wife acquired a 1940s house on the Wirral and brought someone in to bring it up-to modern standards. He started doing the labouring to cut costs and then signed up for a bricklaying course with his local college. At the end of the course he went to work as an apprentice with a local firm, Les Perry Roofing Contractors.
Ceiran’s apprenticeship was very successful and now he has his own business, Peel-Price Construction. “It’s a no-brainer for service people really, there are so many transferrable skills”, he says about the opportunities for veterans.
In Oliver Drew’s case, another BMI Apprentice of the Year finalist, he didn’t leave the army following injury, it was more that they grew apart – especially when he found himself based in London and missing home in County Durham. As a Scots Guard, his five years of service included ceremonial duties, such as guarding Buckingham Palace and Trooping the Colour. Otherwise, his role was being part of a reconnaissance and sniper platoon.
He decided that leaving the army would give him the chance to get a trade and still have time to return to the colours if he wanted. The forces had given him a great attitude: “I’m motivated to do my best, no matter what I am doing in life”, he says.
Although he had never thought of roofing as a career, a friend who worked for a roofing company based in Stanley, Hodgson-Sayers; and said that he should apply – so he did. After going through the three-tier selection process he was offered an apprenticeship. “Time-keeping, good presentation, quality workmanship and a good standard of dress are all important,” explains Glyn Neasham, the Regulatory Affairs Manager who manages the Hodgson-Sayers apprenticeship programme.
“I jumped at the chance when I got it and it’s been great. I love working outdoors and I like hard work,” says Oliver. “All the things I’ve learnt are useful, like punctuality and discipline – you need that to make sure you’re safe while working. And, like the army, you’ve got to keep your kit clean.”
Tom Thompson’s army career took a sudden turn as July 10th 2009 dawned. Early that morning, elements of Tom’s unit – 9 Platoon, C Company, 2 Rifles – started out on a routine patrol from Forward Operating Base Wishtan, Sangin, Afghanistan.
Yet the day was catastrophically far from routine. A short time into the patrol, the men were hit by a ‘daisy chain’ of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). On hearing the explosions, other members of 9 Platoon raced to the aid of their comrades. Having retrieved the wounded, the group was hastening back to base when it was hit by a second IED daisy chain. In a few short minutes, almost half of 9 Platoon’s strength of 30 had been killed or injured: five men died.
Suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Tom was unable to tour operationally again and, after a false start as Physical Training Instructor, he left the army at the end of his contract.
Adapting to civilian life, especially in the light of his PTSD, was hard. He knew something had to change and while living at home in Devizes, he found his way into roofing – by accident. He was watching two roofers at work, and the penny dropped: “I thought that's it: active, fast, skilled and a team! This is what I’m looking for”.
Tom looked around for local roofing firms and came across Melksham-based A. L. King. Tom was an able apprentice and started to progress with his qualifications – so much so that he came second, with a judge’s commendation, in the national SkillBuild finals in 2017. This heralded success in 2018, where Tom was Highly Commended in the Ptiched Roof category of the BMI Apprentice of the Year competition in June.
He explains: “I knew I didn't want a job that was nine-to-five and I knew I needed a trade. I was looking for something that kept my mind working, hands busy and where I could be proud of the finished product.
“I would recommend it to anyone coming out of the services – and would say, never be afraid to re-train. There’s a lot of support available – I got tons from my tutor and training is there from manufacturers like BMI too.”
While the experiences of the three soldiers and their exits from the army differ; there’s no doubt that they are united in their belief that their time in the services has given them the right attributes for working in the construction industry – roofing in this case – but also that roofing has given them a way back into society, and a chance to re-build their lives and look forward to the future.