Berthon: buoyed up by apprentices

If you are interested in finding out more about employing apprentices and the benefits they can bring to a business like Berthon Boat Company, please complete the enquiry form. Alternatively you can call the National Apprenticeship Service on 08000 150 600.

Say Berthon Boat Company, and you are talking yachts. Occupying an area of picturesque Lymington that that was mentioned as a port in the Domesday Book, it’s the yard in which the boats were built for the first Americas Cup in 1851. Four generations of the May family have run the company since 1917 – it’s a family business with sea in its blood.

It is also an unusually multi-faceted business.

With offices in Newport, Rhode Island, USA, and the south of France as well as at Lymington, Berthon Boat Company’s brokerage business advises customers on buying and selling high-quality sailing, motor and performance yachts. Customers from Scandinavia to Japan to New Zealand come to buy yachts from Berthon.

More than 100 skilled workers – the largest part of Berthon Boat Company’s workforce – build, service, maintain, refit and repair boats.

This can range from valeting a luxury craft to building a lifeboat from the latest composite materials.

Then there is Berthon Boat Company’s marina, which provides 280 deepwater berths for yachts up to 45m with facilities for anything from an overnight stay to a permanent base.

These combined activities make up an £18m-turnover company that has increased its workforce from 90 to 160 employees in the past five years. “We are one of the only vertically integrated businesses in the world in this sector,” says managing director Brian May. “It’s a diverse business – but we are essentially a leisure business that can do commercial work.”

But when you say Berthon Boat Company, you are also talking apprentices. Few MDs are as passionate about apprenticeships as Brian May. And does he walk the walk.

One striking fact: apprentices account for approximately one-third of Berthon Boat Company’s shop floor team.

“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” says May – after all, the ratio used to be 1:1. “We are ensuring the future of our business and providing massive job satisfaction to the trainers as well as those being trained.”

“Many of our managers are ex-apprentices,” he adds. “Most of our brokers and dockmasters have been trained in house. We train everybody.”

Although Berthon Boat Company has been training apprentices for over 100 years, it was in 2000 that they started to engage local colleges direct to combat apprentice apathy and from 2008 May has galvanised many other small and medium-sized companies in the marine industry. “Over the last five years alone, we have placed or hired more than 100 apprentices in 35 different competitor marine businesses, with a 97 per cent success rate in graduation.”

The company has worked with sector skills organisations and trade bodies to create new courses, such as one for yacht brokers and another that is focused on boat moving in boatyards and marinas. “We are creating new learning for the industry all the time,” he says.

“We don’t have any production lines here, so we train them to think about and solve problems on the job. We are not teaching apprentices how to assemble an engine; we are teaching apprentices how to disassemble an engine, diagnose the faults, and reassemble it.”

The benefits for any business are evident, he notes. “When you commit to an apprenticeship, you have to take them on for the period of the apprenticeship, and for the level of skill we require, that means four years.

“By the end, as long as they have been academically educated properly by their colleges, you have home-built, home-made, highly-skilled individuals who know your business and know how to do the jobs you need them to do correctly, the first time.”

May has firm and clear advice for other employers about how to make an apprenticeship programme succeed.

“Engage with your local colleges to find out whether they can provide the type of training you need. Make sure they can do so before you take on an apprentice.

“There is no point in taking one on unless they have the proper academic training alongside the vocational aspect; over 85 per cent of their education is on the job training by us. The government has been doing an awful lot of good in focusing the colleges as providers to deliver up-to-date, relevant training for local businesses,” he says.

What employers put in, they will get out. Berthon Boat Company provides work experience opportunities for students at eight local colleges and now only employs apprentices after an initial one-on-one day’s trial at Berthon.

The company attends open days at these colleges, and holds open days at the yard in Lymington to encourage early thought of becoming an apprentices as a valid career path.

Keep telling the message. “You have to tell the local media what you are doing, that you are training, taking on youngsters and giving them a career.”

Tell your customers. It can yield some extraordinary opportunities.

One customer, hearing May talk about apprentices, was so taken by Berthon Boat Company’s scheme that he offered to bring back an apprentice from New Zealand on his boat. He ended up taking four apprentices – one on each leg – on a 12,500-mile, 102-day voyage across the Pacific, through the Panama, through Caribbean and Atlantic, and back to Lymington.

“Most of them had only been out on an hour’s sea trial before then,” says May. For one of them, the furthest he had been to sea was on the ferry from Wales to Ireland. “Yes, there was sea sickness and sunburn but they came back much more square-shouldered. They learned an enormous amount about real life.”

This year, Berthon Boat Company will take on another ten apprentices. “We don’t believe we will keep all of them at the end of their four year period,” May happily admits.

“The success of our apprenticeship programme means that they might leave us especially now that kids see an apprenticeship as a career path through to higher education, even university – but the cost of training them will have been more than paid back in years three and four and from the ones we do manage to keep.”

The apprenticeship programme is just one powerful example of Berthon Boat Company’s commitment to investment and its desire to stay ahead of the game. May also believes its success sends a wider message.

“For the economy to grow, we need to build up skills. If we don’t develop those skills ourselves, we’ll have to bring them in from elsewhere. That leads to skills inflation, and that is not good for UK plc. We all have to get out there to train and build skills via apprenticeships – there is no other way.”

The National Apprenticeship Service supports the delivery of apprenticeships and traineeships in England. It offers free, impartial advice and support to employers looking to recruit for the first time or expand their programme.

For more information on the benefits of apprenticeships to your business complete the enquiry form to talk to someone at the National Apprenticeship Service.  Alternatively you can call the National Apprenticeship Service on free phone 08000 150 600.