Whitecode Consulting – Upskilling through continuous learning

Director of Whitecode Consulting, Alex Hill, explains why combining staff training and technology reduces labour issues.

In the interview we explore:

  • Why training was a priority over a period of uncertainty
  • The impact that discussing and facilitating  individual career aspirations had on the team and business
  • Why training is so important to every person at Whitecode
  • Any tips and tricks he has found from this time to share with the industry
  • Future industry predictions and their plan on how to keep thriving
  • The impact of upskilled staff and their awareness of new approaches
  • Their ability to embrace new opportunities for digitalisation

Surviving To Thriving: Whitecode Transcript 

Whilst the knock-on effects of the pandemic have predominantly been gloomy, the reality is that some businesses emerged from the other side of a turbulent few years in better shape.

We caught up with Alex Hill, Managing Director at Whitecode Consulting Ltd.

Here, we dived into how things run at Whitecode, how they managed through the pandemic and why investing time - and effort - into their employees has reaped rewards.

Anthony Puma: Could you tell me more about Whitecode and your role?

Alex Hill: So Whitecode's a building services design consultant operating throughout the UK. We've got two offices; one in Northfleet in Kent and one in a slightly nicer location - Durban in South Africa.

Whitecode services all building services design needs for clients, from the Ministry of Justice to developers in the mixed-use housing scheme. Ranging from a one-off house to prisons, we can produce designs, condition surveys, or anything in between really.

Anthony Puma: Training is really significant at Whitecode, impacting around 30% of staff at any one point in time. During the recent lockdown, when many felt so much uncertainty, there was a big focus on this to make sure you came out stronger and better positioned. Why did you feel that this was an opportunity to invest in training as a company?

Alex Hill: I knew we would recover, so I didn't want to waste valuable time. Often, there's never enough time in a day to do as much training as you want, so why not come back out the other end of a pandemic with staff who've utilised any slack they had to get better at what we do?

In our sector, there's always going to be another body of training, another course to go on or another standard to read - maybe there's something you've put off doing because you hadn't had the time. So, for me, it was about using any available time as well as you can, which might've meant reading that article you've never found time for or studying something to educate yourself further.

It's significant as engineers are very much about "what we know", so if we don't know, we can't help. So, it was crucial to me to try and allow all of those engineers the time to do that extra thing, such as that CPD that they never had time to do. Doing so meant that they were busy through the lockdown. Equally, it ensured that we could keep hold of everyone ready for normality to resume.

Anthony Puma: As we're coming out of the pandemic, what impact has overlaying individual career paths against the business goals had?

Alex Hill: One of the things we wanted was to see some benefit to the training we do. To do so, we engaged with our Professional Institute, CIBSE - the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers - so that we're getting approval for the training that we already do.

Doing this ensures that the training that we're delivering provides a benefit of a faster route to professional recognition for our staff. Staff wanted to have that structure which means as they progress through the company, they're ticking off their CIBSE professional recognition, or their Engineering Council recognition, in the easiest possible method.

We've put a lot of effort in over the last couple of years to align what we're doing with the processes of CIBSE and Engineering Council.

Anthony Puma: At any one point, Whitecode has several apprentices. Combining this with your approach to training shows how important you value development. Why should everyone continue to learn and evolve?

Alex Hill: So, for me, there's a lot of people in the industry that probably think once they've done their training, that's it, and then it's just experience-based. And actually, for me, coming from a part of my hobbies background, I view education in the way in which the military thinks of it too. In short, they think about skill fading. If you don't pick up something and use it within six months, you're not current - if that makes sense. Thinking like that, within the business during the lockdown, I could start thinking about similarities and ask, 'How do I improve the business?'

And actually, skill fade is such an important thing that people miss. If you don't pick up a calculator tool and use it, or if you don't design a ductwork system, if you don't know how to use something, you're not going to be able to suddenly do it when you think you'll be able to need it.

I think it's vital for everybody - whoever and wherever they are - to never stop learning. I tried to learn something new every day - using the cliché - but I engaged in the fire engineering degree course. And, you know, level five is complex, but I've really enjoyed it. It's like going back to university again, and it's given me a great grounding on some of the fundamentals that I've listened to that I can apply to the building services world.

And actually, I feel empathy for some of my staff who are doing their dissertations or major projects as it offers a unique, shared understanding. I think it's quite important for a business owner to actually do what they're doing and then actually deliver it as well.

Anthony Puma: The industry is probably facing a perfect storm at the moment. We've got an increase in regulations and legislation, but we've also got a scarcity of materials and labour. So, what does the industry need to do to continue to thrive over the coming years?

Alex Hill: The shortage of labour really comes down to training. Yesterday I was talking in a grammar school, and I was encouraging students there that the construction industry - and obviously, I'm biased - and the bit that I do, the building services world, is a great career.

I've managed to encourage my old school to run a construction course for the last four years, and that's been brilliant for us. The construction industry has been a very male-dominated field for years, but we've been encouraging people of all ages and genders at A-Levels to come into the sector. Construction is very varied, and we're trying to show that there's a career path for anyone there - if more people do the same, it should hopefully go a long way to helping the labour issues.

With a pool of good, well-trained staff, the challenges associated with new regulations, and the challenges of construction materials supply, can be resolved. But if you've not got many people available to fill positions, for example, problems take longer to solve, and the skills shortage becomes more apparent. There are always going to be material supply problems or new regulations - you just need the right amount of people in the right places to deliver the construction output. Only then can we solve those challenges.

Anthony Puma: One of the challenges the construction industry has is that it's often accused of being slow to change, with a prominent mindset of "We've always done it this way". So if you look at it from the perspective of a new person coming into the industry, how do we change that mindset, and how do we make sure we're upscaling the existing staff to look at new ways of working?

Alex Hill: I think communication is probably one of the most important things around understanding change. We're slow to change because we don't necessarily get the message out there. For example, I'll sit with clients and say, "Have you seen the new Part S?", and they'll often say, "What's Part S?".

Communication and engagement with the industry are just areas we've got to get better at. We need more people talking about things, whether that's the new charging Part S, the changes for Part L, or what's possibly coming in the fire world. The draft consultation process and telling our clients what sits in our drafts before it lands on their desk would enable us to change faster.

Anthony Puma: One of the considerable areas of change coming through is obviously digitalisation - Payapps is a notable example here. But, do you see any adoption barriers, and if so, what do companies need to do to break them down?

Alex Hill: We've found as a business that the previous structure and ownership would focus on capital costs, but this isn't necessarily the way to approach things. When you break down a solution that you're looking to deliver, it actually boils down to time-saving for the business. Less time spent on projects means greater efficiency and lower costs - allowing staff to focus on more high-value tasks.

From my perspective, the capital costs pale into insignificance. Every time we’ve tried to deliver anything digitally for example, the capital has always been a factor in decision making, sure, but truly understanding the time saved and the value of those individuals to go and do something that's got more significance for you as a business is unparalleled. You won't worry about the capital if you can do that and use appropriate tools to properly analyse the value of digitisation.

Anthony Puma: But this seems to be something that, as an industry, we keep doing time and time again. We're always looking at unit cost procurement and initial costs instead of taking a long-term value approach over a period of time. Is it again, another human nature, that barrier that we need to break down?

Alex Hill: In all the standards we have to meet and all the costs associated with regulations, perhaps, we need to think of a structure to help small businesses. I think larger companies get it more. The bigger you are, the more in tune you are with what things cost you to do.

But maybe smaller industry adopters need to look at tools that enable them to have a quick framework or a calculator that looks at the time saved by inputting some data. If they can have something that offers a very quick understanding, the capital will pale into insignificance.

Anthony Puma: One final question. If there was one bit of advice you could give anyone in terms of how to continue thriving moving forward, what would it be?

Alex Hill: Enjoy what you do. If you don't enjoy what you do, go and do something else. I enjoy what I do every day. I've laughed this morning with a client over what was a stressful situation. I think that if you don't enjoy what you do, then you're never going to be in the right place, and you're not going to be happy.

So, I think that's the one thing - don't take everything too seriously, even when it's going terribly wrong. Stand back and laugh at the situation you find yourself in, and actually, more often than not, the solution will present itself.