R&D Construction near Walsham-le-Willows plans to build training centre to help close skills gap

R&D Construction

R&D Construction - Credit: Archant

Achieving impressive double-digit growth over time is what most businesses dream of. But expansion of this kind brings with it new challenges around managing workloads, recruiting new staff and ensuring access to the relevant skills.

Peter Cobbold - commercial director at R&D Construction

Peter Cobbold - commercial director at R&D Construction - Credit: Archant

These are some of the issues Peter Cobbold, commercial director at Suffolk-based R&D Construction, has had to tackle since he joined the firm six months ago.

Groundwork services

With headquarters at Walsham-le-Willows, north of Bury St Edmunds, R&D is a civil engineering contractor providing groundwork services across various sectors including new housing developments, schools, retail parks, car parks and utilities. The company is currently working with national and regional housebuilders, main contractors, developers and private individuals, and over the past four years has seen its turnover triple from £9m in 2013 to more than £30m for the financial year to 2017.

“New housing across Suffolk and Norfolk accounts for a significant proportion of our business,” said Peter.

“We are doing this work for new customers such as Countryside Properties and David Wilson Homes, as well as for our existing customers Hopkins Homes and Taylor Wimpey.

“We have actively sought new business and recently secured three new housing projects with new customers in Norfolk and Suffolk that will see us delivering main roads, drainage, infrastructure and foundations for 420 new dwellings over the next three years.”

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The company has also taken on more work on commercial projects and is currently delivering the groundwork elements associated with two new schools in Red Lodge and Stanway near Colchester; as well as nearing completion on a retail park, also in Stanway, for Churchmanor Estates.

Site operatives at R&D Construction

Site operatives at R&D Construction - Credit: Archant

Fleet of foot

And as the work has come in, so the workforce has grown to a point where today around 220 people are employed by R&D. Approximately 45 of these people are based at head office and work in areas, such as accounts, estimating, surveying and health and safety. The remaining 180 or so operatives are out on the twenty plus sites the business typically has running at any one time.

Peter says with a business of this size and a large workforce to keep busy, the company has to always be talking with customers about projects that may be on the horizon and looking for potential opportunities.

He continued: “If you employ 220 people and then think about the families they support and the supply chain companies we work with, at any one time you have between 1,500 to 2,000 people depending on us to pay their mortgage each month. “When you think about it like that - it’s quite daunting.

“In the construction industry you have to be fleet of foot because we are so reliant on economic policy and interest rates etc. It’s not just a case of predicting what the next big thing is, it’s about trying to see what the next four big things will be.

“For example, the government is investing in a big schools programme at the moment, so we are looking at that, and when there were wind farms and solar panels going up because they were being heavily subsidised, R&D teams did a lot of work connecting those up to the grid.”

R&D Construction

R&D Construction - Credit: Archant

New training centre

Staff planning and ensuring a steady stream of skilled workers are available is also crucial.

At the head office Peter says there is “a mixture of graduates, trainee managers and established managers”, so newcomers can learn from those who have been in the sector for longer.

“We have now an established management structure for sustainable growth going forward,” he said.

Management training will also be on the agenda at a training centre that the company hopes to develop at its HQ.

The company has recently been given planning permission to convert an outbuilding into a ‘centre of excellence’ where R&D workers can develop and help the company make inroads into the skills shortage facing the construction sector .

Peter said: “It’s Richard’s [R&D joint owner Richard Pratt] vision that we develop a centre of excellence for operatives -for people dealing with plant equipment and working on-site, as well as managers. Some people within R&D are already training up to become trainers themselves.

“There is a skills shortage and we can see it developing further, which is worrying for us as we rely on having 200 people on-site to do the work for us.

He added: “Most of those people are skilled, and many are multi-skilled, so its about looking at the age of those people and assessing when they might disappear out of the industry and working to replace them.

“The older guys have so much experience, you want them to take younger people under their wing and mentor them, and bring the next generation on.”