Work experience for tradespeople
Reading time: 5 minutes
Veteran builder Andy Simms shares his thoughts on why there’s no substitute for on the job experience...
When it comes to learning a trade, there’s no doubt that training and formal qualifications have value. They demonstrate understanding and knowledge of your field, and are useful to have. But as someone who used to run a construction company, if I’m comparing paper learning to practical on-site experience, there’s really no contest.
Theory is only half the story
Being a tradesperson is so much more than just doing the task right in front of you, whether that’s replacing a leaky tap or installing a new light switch. And while you can read about how to tackle all the many extras that make a tradeperson's job, it doesn’t compare to actually doing them. Some of the things you'll have to master are:
- Sourcing and purchasing materials
- Understanding the anatomy of different houses
- Dealing with clients
- Working in people’s homes
- Helping and understanding other trades
- Appreciating where your trade fits into the wider building process
Earning your stripes
In building, there’s an age-old concept of the 'right of passage' that many still believe in. It goes something like this:
If you haven't been a tea boy...
If you haven't struggled for money...
If you haven’t done the donkey work...
...then you haven’t really become a proper tradesperson - you’ve just come in by the back door.
Personally I don’t place too much stock in this view. Of course, many builders have been on this journey and expect other people to have done the same, so I can understand it. But this way of looking at things confuses struggling with gaining experience. I believe the latter is vital.
How to get experience
It’s simple - go and find it. Put yourself out there and announce to the world that you are now a budding tradesperson and that you’re willing to do what it takes, even if that means taking on less popular jobs or working at a lower rate for the time being.
You can build up your experience on your own, or working with other people who can show you the ropes:
- Local tradespeople - The dream is to find a firm with a great reputation who can pass on their wisdom and knowledge. There is no substitute. Contact different firms and offer your services, and see if you can tag along and help out. If you can, try working with a few different companies and see who’s interested in helping you develop your skills and giving you opportunities to grow.
- Friends, family and social media - Ask your friends, family, their friends, and post on social media that you’re available for work. Just be completely upfront - with yourself, and them - about what you can do, and don’t put yourself in a position where you can hurt anyone, destroy their home, or lose a friendship.
- Job sites - Websites like Indeed might be a good place to look, just be honest and don't profess to be anything you're not.
Working for other tradespeople
If you manage to get a gig with an experienced tradesperson, it’s a fantastic opportunity for you to grow your skills and build real experience.
But you have to be realistic. It’s likely that these guys are expecting you to be more hassle than useful. It is up to you to prove them wrong. Expect to work hard, do the jobs that no one else wants and not be paid very much for the privilege.
As hard as it is, this time is invaluable. You are literally laying the foundations of your new career. You will learn a great deal, even if it is not directly related to the trade you ultimately want to be doing.
Ask as many questions as you can along the way, about your jobs or what others are doing on site. You need to work hard, show common sense, and an eagerness to learn. Don’t be afraid to say when you don’t know something, and ask questions about how things are done - but remember that in their eyes, you’re there to work and they’re your boss first, not your private tutor.
Over time, your confidence will start to grow. You should be consistently assessing whether you are on the correct path. Are you progressing enough? Are you being given the opportunity to grow? Are you just being used for cheap labour? You will have to use your own gut to guide you.
It takes a long time to progress in building so be patient, but please make sure it's worth your while. If your colleagues are receptive to your questions, if they go out of their way to teach you what they can when they can, you're probably onto a winner. If on the other hand your questions are an annoyance and you are shown little respect, it’s time to move on.
I’ve found that age can make a difference - if you’re older, they might take you a bit more seriously and know you’re committed, whereas if you’re younger, they might question if your heart is really in it.
Just remember, if in doubt, making the tea will always give you some brownie points.
Going it alone from the start
For a lot of trades it would be outright irresponsible to work in any home without proper experience, and some trades are heavily regulated for this reason. For example, you shouldn’t do any work on gas unless you’re qualified and on the Gas Safe Register.
Some trades are more open to newcomers though, and many make the leap from being DIY fans to joining the trades. When starting, make sure you only stick to what you know you are capable of. When you gain confidence you can progressively start to gear up in the scale and complexity of what you do.
Make no mistake, experience is king when it comes to the trades - and there’s no better time to start getting some than now.