Roofing Training Company of the Year

Leading from the top

Jennie and Neil Gillespie, co-founders and managing directors of Topline Roofing – RANZ Training Company of the Year 2021 – talk about their training culture and how they nurture new apprentices for RoofLink magazine

Congratulations on winning Training Company of the Year – not for the first time – and thanks for agreeing to share some of your insights into training, which we hope will help inspire and motivate fellow members to ‘grow the pie’ of NZ’s roofing talent pool.

What motivates you to invest in taking on new apprentices as a company?

We’ve been taking on apprentices for 35 years now – it’s something we’ve always done. Our future and the industry depends on it at this time. There’s a limited pool of experienced roofers available in New Zealand, so we in our industry need to look at how we can turn semi-skilled workers into good roofers. At Topline, we look for people with aptitude and the right attitude – their motivation has to be 100%. It’s a great feeling to see these people succeed from being unskilled labourers to highly skilled tradesmen and women. As a team, we also enjoy mentoring and seeing people succeed. We get huge satisfaction in seeing their development, along with the opportunity it gives them to succeed in life.

What do you see as benefits to the broader team of having apprentices on board?

We have a highly competent and experienced roofing team, and they’re happy and willing to pass on their knowledge and skills to enthusiastic apprentices. It’s all part of the broader picture of supporting our industry and keeping our skills alive and relevant. We know that there are industries out there that have lost a lot of those skills.

Including career pathways, training, and mentoring brings the team together, providing a positive culture and respect. It also makes the experienced team members check themselves in technique when passing on information, so it helps keep everyone up to date and relevant.

Our experienced team members enjoy the mentoring system and get a lot of satisfaction in seeing their less experienced team members develop. So it’s a really great payback for everyone and helps foster a positive environment. The learning environment also encourages open communication, which has many other team benefits.

There is a considerable investment to balance that’s associated with training a new recruit. It costs a lot of money, and the ‘greener’ they are initially, the more the investment, with a lot of unchargable time incurred and having to hold experienced roofers back to help train them.

With some projects needing just to get done, keeping up on-site training of apprentices is a real juggle and can mean incurring costs and overruns on some jobs. You, therefore, need to be careful about placing apprentices on appropriate jobs – that’s what counts. There are times when they need to stand back and watch, do the site tidy-ups, and do the hard work that all apprentices have to go through.

What do you think is essential to keep trainees engaged and committed long term to their career in roofing?

You need positive role models and leaders, people they can go to for advice and help. They need feedback on progress – that’s really important, and they need recognition for doing well – small achievements count. Consistent messaging is essential –stick to the plan, show the importance of working as a team, and provide excellent team communication.

What do you think makes for a good on-site learning environment?

Positive teamwork and a positive learning culture. Learning is also a lot more achievable when you enjoy the people you work with; also, maintaining high work standards for quality, health-and-safety and paperwork means that all team members know the expectations for the company as a whole.

You need to get the priorities right, and health and safety is your first priority. Providing a safe work environment makes people feel secure, putting them in a better position to learn. And also, allowing all people the right to have a say in an inclusive environment is fundamental.

There’s another side to this equation. The success of the trainee is also dependent on the effort they put into their role. The team doesn’t accept unexplained absenteeism, lateness or slack work effort. The team will eventually weed people out if these behaviours show up. That’s the other side to making things work.

Tell us about some of your apprentice success stories?

Having been in business for over 35 years, we’ve had many successful apprentices, along with many award-winners across our plumbing, gas-fitting and roofing apprentices. Some of these successful roofers have moved on to start their own contracting businesses – that’s just something you have to accept. Hopefully, they’ve put in a reasonable amount of time with you before that happens, and we often maintain good links with those people, which is great. We’ve also had several of these people return to the company to take leadership positions. We’ve had others remain in the company for long periods, gradually rising through the company to take on specialist or leadership roles. There are great opportunities within the company as a leading hand or in supervisory or project management roles; otherwise, pricing or sales, so there are lots of areas to progress
in our business.

Two members of the RANZ Executive are currently tutors for some of the Roofing Certificate block courses. They’ve been adding some more practical industry learning, which was an area they identified as in need of development. How have you found the Roofing Certification programme, as employers, and from feedback from your apprentice trainees?

We’ve had mixed reviews. A couple of experienced roofers said they felt there wasn’t much in there for them. The inexperienced roofers found it really helpful and that it was crammed full of information, both in the theory and block course. It was noted that there wasn’t a lot of contact from block course tutors after the block course and that the content was geared to residential, not commercial areas.

What would you like to see in future roofing certification development?

If it were to be separated into residential and commercial, it could seem disjointed, so adding some commercial coverage within the existing course could be great. Perhaps there could be an additional module at the end for the benefit of experienced roofers and also give a glimpse of advanced roofing. This could include plan-reading, team work, work plans, timelines and communication skills. This could offer an eye-opener and appreciation of what bosses do and what the whole business is about for all levels.

What other advice would you give roofing employers looking to set up a good training culture?

First and foremost, you need to have a positive company culture, which includes robust dialogue and feedback from the team. Also, make sure that you have suitable staff who are open to training and mentoring prospective roofers to succeed.

Many positives come with training. For example, we’ve had parents come in and personally thank you for the difference the apprenticeship has made to their child's life. Those moments come out of the blue and are moving and fulfilling.

Find out more about roofing training at the link here; about RANZ Awards here; or about becoming a RANZ Member here