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Cabinet maker to demolisher

Keltbray’s Brendan Kerr left school aged 15 to train as a carpenter and now runs a company committed to training.

Brendan Kerr did not get any O Levels. But he now runs the country’s largest demolition firm, Keltbray, which has worked on some of the highest profile projects of recent years such as Arsenal FC’s Emirates Stadium and St Pancras station.

He in fact chose to leave school before taking O Levels, aged 15, to follow his fathers’ craft, carpentry. “I was very keen to leave school,” he says. He became an apprentice in Belfast, spending his first year in a joinery workshop making staircases, doors and windows.

“I could still make you a nice cabinet today,” he says. He puts some of his later success down to the course he chose, because carpenters were often involved at every stage of the building process. “You have to know how to put the roof on and do the front door. From day one you are involved, to the very end.”

And he is obviously a fan of getting started early: “Apprenticeships are totally paramount to the success of this industry - not everyone can go to university nor do we need everyone to, we need practical and skilled people that can do the physical work.

“Without apprenticeships you won’t achieve that and the industry is in danger of a widening white collar workforce and nobody to do the work. There seems to be lack of schemes, and that is of great concern,” he says.

His firm is very keen to get more people into demolition, something which may have suffered from an unfair perception as a lesser industry. It currently has about 200 staff working towards NVQ level 2.

“Everyone thinks they are a great idea and everyone wants it to happen but there is very little action. I’m not saying there’s no action, but if the action matched the mindset…”

Mr Kerr laments the government for its lack of support for apprenticeships. He says: “The view is: ‘well if you can’t get into anything else, get into construction’. And that is still a very strong message at schools.

“I would like to see opportunities brought forward to schools on a local basis, where people see the benefits of working in this industry. And these should be backed up by government support for apprentice schemes and the necessary grants for that.

At this moment in time, construction does not feature in any government careers literature that we have ever read.”

Why is training important? “Protection of skills is of huge importance; unfortunately in a downturn the industry is at risk of losing skills and then when we get to an upturn we are left somewhat exposed. Training and apprenticeships should be ongoing, things that we focus on all the time.”

On the up

1989     Joins Keltbray as project manager

2003     Becomes the sole owner of Keltbray as group managing director.

2008     Keltbray employs 420 people with a turnover of £128 million. Brendan Kerr valued at £40 million in Sunday Times rich list

2009     The company plans expansion to the Middle East: “The market is going quiet there but we are still pursuing it.”

“We all have a responsibility”

Holly Bennett is training and development director at Keltbray. She started her career aged 16 as an apprentice on a demolition site and at 23 was a fully-qualified explosives engineer.

“We are very big on training. There is a lot of skill involved in the demolition of buildings, so we have put a scheme together to ensure we have a workforce in the future.

“The average age of an employee here is 45 and the more experienced demolition operatives tend to be older. We pride ourselves on foresight, and although the economy is struggling, there will come a point where we need people to be ready for work.

“We are aware that they may go off to competitors but it’s not just about Keltbray - it is about the industry.

“We have 30 young apprentices and there are about 200 people in total doing NVQ level 2. It is done for the good of the business.

“I think main contractors have just as much responsibility as subcontractors. We all have a responsibility to make sure that the industry is a viable business for everyone.”

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