Home Pitched Roofing “I want people to leave school and say ‘I want to be a roofer’”

“I want people to leave school and say ‘I want to be a roofer’”

by Jennie Ward

With the skills crisis continuing to impact roofing, one roofer in Scotland is taking matters into his own hands. Matt Downs caught up with Darren McGhee, MD of DMG Services Group, to discuss the launch of the DMG Academy of Roofing, the challenges around recruiting workers, changing perceptions of the sector, and just how rewarding a career in roofing can be…

Darren McGhee, Managing Director of DMG Services Group Ltd.

“I love roofing, I love being a roof tiler, I love the process from putting on the first bit of felt, to the final ridge.” After over 20 years in roofing, it’s refreshing to hear the energy and enthusiasm that Darren McGhee, Managing Director of DMG Services Group Ltd, still has when discussing his chosen career. It’s contagious, even over the Zoom call we caught up on, where we discussed the many challenges he and other contractors continue to juggle around supply and skills.

“The challenges I face today are very different from those in the past. Before I had to prove myself to win jobs, but now after years of dedication the work is coming to me. When Covid hit it brought with it all kinds of different challenges, including the knock-on effect of material shortages and price increases – but I think if my business can survive that, it can survive anything!”

Whilst negotiating the challenges around supply of materials has been disruptive and frustrating, looking forward it’s the perennial problem of skills and recruiting workers that worries Darren most. Indeed, this is backed up by numerous reports and surveys from the roofing and wider construction industry, with NFRC’s recent Q3 State of the UK Roofing Industry Survey describing the skills shortage as “the next ticking time bomb” and highlighting that three-quarters of NFRC members are experiencing recruitment difficulties for roles from roof slaters and tilers, to cladders. More widely, according to the last ONS census in 2011, one in every five UK-born construction workers were aged over 55, meaning that this year they will have reached retirement age.

“It’s all very well having all the work, but if you haven’t got the manpower, it’s impossible.”

Taking matters into his own hands
These figures are not lost on Darren who is seeing the evidence on site and has taken matters into his own hands with the launch of the DMG Academy of Roofing in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire.

As Darren pointed out: “It’s all very well having all the work, but if you haven’t got the manpower, it’s impossible.”

The Academy of Roofing has been something Darren has been planning for a number of years, but as he explained, now is the right time to launch for a number of reasons: “It’s been in my mind for many years, but I’ve never really had the work or the profile to set something like this up. Winning Britain’s Top Tradesperson in 2019 gave me a profile – now the housebuilders are providing me with work. I have ten years of work secured so the perfect time is now – I can’t wait to expand and invest in the Academy, and the next generation.”

He continued: “I’ll regret it if I don’t do this now. Every year my team is getting older – roofing’s a young person’s game. My aim is to attract 17-year-olds for a four-year apprenticeship. By the time they are 21, I’ll have a skilled tradesperson taught to my standards to work on the sites already lined up for them.”

Perceptions
To do that, Darren is aware he has to change perceptions to attract new young talent. “When I was leaving school and going into my apprenticeship, everyone wanted to be a joiner! That was the ‘in’ thing. I want people to leave school and say ‘I want to be a roofer’ and ‘I want to work for DMG.’”

To start with, the DMG Academy of Roofing will be looking to engage with school leavers from the local area. “I have made a connection with Skills Development Scotland and the Careers Advisors from 60 schools. Pupils will be able to come to the Academy for work experience and taster sessions. This will give them the opportunity to practice on our custom-built roofing rigs. That way they can see if they like it before being put on a scaffolding. We can show them in controlled conditions what to do, what it’s like, what to expect. We’ll give them a hammer and a nail bag, I’ll be beside them and Kevin Quinn, my main foreman, will also be there and we can introduce them to roofing properly from day one.”

Cutting out the bad habits
As Darren points out, the great thing about school leavers is “there’s not going to be any bad habits – they’re fresh into it!”

And it appears bad habits, a lack of pride in work and poor workmanship are a problem in some areas on sites currently. Darren explained: “We’ve taken over sites for a number of housebuilders because of the poor workmanship of previous contractors.”

“All I need is a young person who turns up with a good attitude and a willingness to learn – we’ll give them everything else, and if they can do that, the world’s their oyster.”

Indeed, whilst Darren only started new build work two years ago, he currently works with CALA Homes, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes in the east and west, Balfour Beatty and David Willson Homes – rightly pointing out “it’s testament to what we’re trying to do” with regards to skills and standard of quality workmanship.

Darren explained: “I can only take on so much work because I don’t want the standards to drop. It’s baby steps for me – we don’t want to be the biggest roofing contractor in Scotland, but I want to be the best.”

No shortcuts
To be the best, Darren recognises there’s no substitute for hard work, learning from your mistakes and doing things right consistently: “I work hard, there’s no shortcuts. I tell my team, it doesn’t just happen, it’s 20 years in the making. I learn from my mistakes – and I’ll still make mistakes – but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

“Integrity’s about doing the job right when no one’s looking and that’s what I’m trying to instil into my team.”

Darren continued: “Integrity’s about doing the job right when no one’s looking and that’s what I’m trying to instil into my team.” He tells his apprentices to think about the time it takes to do something right as opposed to the time it would take to strip and re-do a full roof if a site agent notices they missed something as simple as a single nail.

Darren looks to instil this attention to detail and focus into his team early on, and as he points out it takes time for some to adapt, whilst some will walk away. “Roofing is a hard game, it’s not for everyone, yet it’s so rewarding. I love encouraging a new start to keep going and give it a real shot, to then see a great roofer emerge.”

But as Darren explained: “All I need is a young person who turns up with a good attitude and a willingness to learn – we’ll give them everything else, and if they can do that, the world’s their oyster.”

A good place to start
For those looking to get into the sector, The DMG Academy of Roofing would be a great place to start. As mentioned earlier, Darren’s passion is contagious, and he leads by example. If a youngster is looking to learn how to do things right, he’s willing to put in the time and effort. He wants the best for his team which will in-turn produce the best for his customers. Unfortunately, there’s still an element in the sector who haven’t got that attitude, and Darren’s aware that won’t change overnight, but as he points out: “I just need to think about us a company and the guys that work for me. If we’re doing everything right, then forget about everyone else. We’ll carry on doing the job properly, and I say to my team ‘if you ever look at a job and ask yourself if you’ll get away with that – you’ve already answered your own question, and it’s not good enough!’”

It’s this attitude that will no doubt see some quality roofers with a healthy respect for the craft entering the market in the coming years; something that we can all agree we need more of if we’re going to improve the perception of our sector, meet the growing demand for competency in construction and ensure roofing can play its part in meeting future targets.

The DMG Academy of Roofing opens on December 8th 2021.

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