The Best From The West


Having produced two consecutive highly-commended finalists in the BMI Redland and Icopal Apprentice of the Year competition, tutor Alan Lander of RoofTrain must be doing something right. RCI met up with him at his Exeter headquarters to find out more.

“I’ve got lots of apprentices, I just need to check if any are called Tom”, quips Alan Lander, tutor and Director of Exeter-based RoofTrain; a leading provider of professional roof training courses in the south west. Alan’s referring to possible candidates for the 2019 BMI Apprentice of the Year competition, referencing his apprentices’ previous successes in the awards. Earlier this year, Alan’s trainee Tom Thompson was Highly Commended in the BMI Redland pitched roof category, while student Tom Knight pulled off the same feat in the 2017 competition.

It’s not the limits of their achievements either. Tom Knight won his South West SkillBuild Regional Heat in 2016 and Tom Thompson came second, with a judge’s commendation, in the national SkillBuild finals in 2017.

These top results are a clear indication of the length and breadth of Alan’s experience in teaching slating and tiling skills. RoofTrain was launched in 2001, as an evolution from Alan’s own contracting business, RoofCraft. Established for 38 years, RoofCraft introduced training at the company 18 years ago, when Alan was first asked to assess NVQs for slating and tiling, and subsequently teach it, for the South West Roof Training Group (SWRTG).

As the training side of the equation gathered momentum, Alan decided to go full time with it. “Like many roofers”, he says, “there comes a time when you wonder about how long you can last outside and keep up with the physical side of things”.

RoofTrain derives much of its work from the SWRTG. The reason is simple: grant funding and subsidised training from the CITB. While RoofTrain is approached directly by contractors to undertake work ‘privately’, it transpires that there is low awareness of the funding opportunities that exist. So Alan, who would have to charge contractors directly and at ‘full price’, points them to the SWRTG. The SWRTG goes through the grants available for employers, source preferential training rates and provide subsidised training – up to 25% for some courses.

To access the subsidies, contractors are required to have training group membership and at £50 per annum, it soon pays its way in course discounts. For those with apprentices, the fee is waived.

Currently Alan is flat out – with six courses running: four at his own training site near Exeter, and another two at SWRTG’s centre in Melksham, Wiltshire. “At the moment, I’m teaching every day. If not here in the workshops, then I’m on site doing assessments”.

By the workshops, he means RoofTrain’s complex of buildings. Formerly a small farm, Alan has converted the outbuildings into a well-appointed and comfortable suite of facilities for his pupils. Alan’s wife Julie runs the administrative side of things from a smart office block, which is adjacent to a spacious classroom. For practical lessons – whether they be slating, tiling or leadwork – he has seven roof rigs at his disposal.

Pitched roofing courses run for 23 days over a 12-month period and cover a range of topics: from employment rights, working at height, general health and safety, asbestos awareness and first aid; through to the usual roofing disciplines of plain tile, natural slate and lead dressing.

“A typical day for me starts at seven thirty”, says Alan. “We get the computer and tea on, ready for when the trainees arrive at eight thirty. There’s normally six in a group, and the first hour of the day is spent on a presentation and discussion – either about the last session or the day ahead”.

“We try to cover health and safety every session too – we could do it in one go, but in a block, you run the risk of losing their attention.”

“Then it’s all about practical skills until about three o’clock, when we strip the rigs, tidy up and go back to the classroom for a debrief. Which is always based around questions: what have they done right? What have they done wrong? And what should they have done? It creates discussion and the lessons of the day are better remembered”.

The trainees knock off at around four, yet the day for Julie and Alan doesn’t end there, as there is preparation for the next session to be done, plus the usual administration of any business; which keeps them both occupied until six or seven most days.

One thing Alan would like to see is more support from manufacturers: “The level of support depends on the company. BMI is very good, and we have always enjoyed a high level of support – both in terms of their trainers visiting us and product donations. These products give students the opportunities to work on different types of materials, and experience varied systems: as they would in life.”

He’s also keen on the BMI Apprentice of the Year competition – not a complete surprise given his track in the event. Although not initially: “I was a bit sceptical at first and wasn’t sure if it’d be worth the trainees’ effort. However, in the end, I was very impressed. The competition itself was brilliant and it really stretched the apprentices – you could actually see them growing. This is typical of the investment that the company makes in our industry,” he commented.

Any trainee or apprentice roofer in the South West looking to hone their skills need look no further than RoofTrain. Between them, Julie and Alan have really created a centre at which to become a master of the roofing arts and don’t worry – your name doesn’t have to be Tom either!

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