Broom Boats has been building boats on Norfolk’s River Yare for roughly 120 years; it was a pioneer in aft-cabin craft and has maintained its market-leading niche position for decades. Remarkably, Broom still does everything in-house, with its own joinery, engineering, electrical, fabrication, upholstery and moulding departments.
“That’s a very broad suite of skills for quite a small company,” says managing director Mark Garner, “and one of our challenges is to retain this breadth of craftsmanship that is the core of Broom.”
And that’s not easy. Over the past decades, the number of boat-building yards in Norfolk has declined steeply.
The skills sets have got scarcer and were being concentrated into a dwindling – and ageing – workforce. To develop and retain skills within the industry, a fresh commitment to apprenticeships was a natural route.
So Broom Boats has partnered with other member companies of British Marine in the third round of the government’s Trailblazer scheme to develop a new boatbuilding, repair and refit apprenticeship. (The Trailblazers are the standards, developed by employer groups, which show what an apprentice will be doing and the skills required of them, by job role.)
What Garner really likes about the Trailblazer scheme is “the ability to tailor the training programme to the specific needs of our business.”
Starting a new apprenticeship scheme
Broom Boats currently has five apprentices in its 90-strong workforce. The company started its apprenticeship scheme three years ago and takes on two or three apprentices each year.
The Trailblazer scheme demands deep engagement by employers. “You need to get stuck in,” says Garner. He says that, while there had historically been frustration among businesses over the relevance and content of what was being taught in the local education environment, “we are slowly working better together to tailor the requirements,” he says.
Working with local education
Knitting local business and local education together through the Trailblazer scheme is “so important,” Garner adds.
“As a business, you need to communicate over time, quite carefully, what content you are looking for. Employers have to communicate the speed of change that is occurring in their business to the education world.
“Boat building is not just about joinery; it’s requires strong skills in electronics, engineering and composite materials. That requires everyone to work hard at this together; an employer can’t just expect these skills to be delivered on a plate.”
Broom Boats has hired all its apprentices from local colleges. Some have done boat building courses at Lowestoft College; others done carpentry or electrical studies at City College Norwich. “We look mainly for soft skills in our apprentices,” explains Garner. “We want to see a positive, can-do attitude, enthusiasm and an ability and desire to be coached and to learn. We have been lucky; every one has worked out well so far.”
The company has three core areas of business: boat building and sales; boating holidays; and marine services.
The apprentices are focused on three main skill sets – electrical, engineering and fabrication – and can then branch off into more specific areas of the business at the end of their apprenticeships.
Of the five apprentices to date, four have remained within Broom’s production business while one is now working in its marine services division.
Skills underpin growth
Broom Boats’ development of its skills base underpins the company’s growth ambitions. Its boating holiday business, which is more than a century old and through which Broom hires boats that it builds, is scaling up; “at present we are just present in the Norfolk Broads but we have plans to extend into continental Europe and other parts of the UK over the next five years,” says Garner. “The beauty of the holiday business is that it pulls our boat building business up with it.”
The marine services division – which encompasses everything in the calendar of boat ownership, from “winterisation” to complete rebuilds – is developing on a national rather than just a regional basis. “There’s a vast range of skills required in this side of the business, as we are looking after our customers throughout their lifetime of boat ownership,” says Garner.
A key part is the forthcoming construction of a new factory that will double Broom Boats’ manufacturing capacity. After 120 years of building in one yard, such a move will represent quite a milestone.