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Tony Douglas: The boy apprentice done good

Tony Douglas left school at 16 and is now in charge of £4 billion-turnover Laing O’Rourke

It is 30 years since Tony Douglas, a down–to–earth lad from Lancashire, set out for college in Liverpool to start four years of practical learning and study as a mechanical engineering apprentice at General Motors.

It was an apprenticeship that helped to produce the human resources director for Fiat globally, the head of a large car component division and the managing director of an injection moulding company. And, of course, the chief operating officer, construction Europe, with the UK’s largest privately owned construction firm, Laing O’Rourke.

Living the dream

Mr Douglas has described what he now does as his “dream job”.  He is well known for his previous role as chief executive of Heathrow Airport, for being the driving force behind much of T5, and for getting on so well with his then supplier Ray O’Rourke that he moved to work for the contractor in summer 2007.

And he has always been ambitious. Doing well at school, he applied for four apprenticeships in 1979 and was offered places on all. “I guess I was older than my age. Getting on and earning a living was very attractive,” he tells Construction News.

“There were 600 applicants for 22 places and we were rigorously tested. When I got in it was like winning the 100m in the Olympics.”

He says the industrial engineer apprenticeship at General Motors was thought of as the best at the time.

He specialised in tool making, clearly remembering his tutor, a man in his fifties called Vernon Bellamy. “The guy was the ultimate trades engineer and, frankly, he was a hard bloke,” Mr Douglas says of the teacher who signed off his weekly tests.

Once he’d got his indentures – or qualified – another seven years of study followed. He did a degree and then an MBA at college in the evenings for two or three nights a week. He went on to work for BAE, starting as an engineering manager and rising to product process director. He was at BAA for nine years.

And he’s still prepared to get his hands dirty. “I’m passionate about proper skills and training. I’ve still got all my tools and I can turn my hand. There aren’t many things I wouldn’t turn my hand to,” he says.

Sadly the course he did fizzled out in the early 1980s, ironically because of a recession. And Mr Douglas is realistic about the effect of today’s economy on the numbers of apprentices his company can take on now. The firm had to lose 320 people in the Middle East last month after work on the $14 billion (£9.4 billion) Al–Raha Beach complex in Abu Dhabi slowed.

He says: “Our commitment to apprentices is still intact with graduates and opportunities but we have to make sure that we have a secure workload. If we don’t then it’s obvious, we can’t continue to commit.”

Of course he hopes the company will win government–backed infrastructure projects, including delivery partner for Crossrail, which it is bidding for in joint venture with Atkins.

He is outspoken about employing and training people directly and feels that some contractors are “bodyshoppers who assume someone else has trained them.

That is why the subcontracting culture is flawed because no one has been properly trained.”

Crossrail challenge

He says that there will be more opportunities for graduates and apprentices if his firm does get the Crossrail job. “Crossrail has to have an organisation directly employing people and making a commitment to legacy skills.

“It is a challenge for UK construction plc. We are the only UK proposition for Crossrail and between the two of us we need to make sure that UK companies bring solutions to the UK. Part of that is to say we will build more graduate and apprenticeship opportunities. We will agree the rules and structure,” he says.

This sounds a little like Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British people’. So what does Mr Douglas think about the strikes earlier this month at oil refineriesand power stations?

“I’m not hugely surprised, I’ve felt the tension for at least three or four months. There is a general political risk that nationally if you don’t get more joined up thinking we might see this behaviour – which isn’t appropriate.”

He is a fan of apprenticeships because young people will balance earning with learning real skills. “But it will only happen if the government and employers have the structure in place,” he says.

He has been clear about giving project directors more power and for wanting the best people to work for him. So it is no surprise that he believes strongly in training and of course, employing all of his firm’s 31,000 people direct. But presiding over this empire does not seem to have gone to his head. “I can talk to anyone,” he says.

From astronaut to apprentice

Matthew Tarwacki wanted to be an astronaut as a child, but leaving school with his GCS Es he decided on joinery as a trade.

He started his apprenticeship with Laing O’Rourke four years ago after being accepted by several firms when he applied via the Construction Industry Training Board.

His first site was in Durham, where he learnt various aspects of joinery. He is now a working on the Cherry Knowle hospital in Sunderland.

He has twice been named apprentice of the year by his firm for the North-east. “I was chuffed to bits. I knew I’d done well but I didn’t expect it,” he says.

While a couple of his colleagues moved on to Sir Robert McAlpine after they had finished their apprenticeships, Matthew is sticking with Laing O’Rourke. “I want to be a project manager, which will take about 10 years,” he says.

He adds that he enjoys it because he has worked in different places and does something new every day. “It’s where I can progress the best for my career,” he says.