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Responsible role for the master’s apprentices

GOING on a recruitment drive when other firms are laying off staff is not just a display of community spirit, according to WA heavy machinery giant Westrac Equipment.

With a skills shortage predicted in the near-term, Westrac believes its plans to increase trade apprentice-ships by 60 per cent over the next three years is good for business too.

As the largest WA service facility, Westrac employs 900 people from its 18.5 hectare South Guildford base, including 320 trades personnel involved in servicing, repairing and rebuilding of heavy plant equipment around-the-clock.

The Caterpillar distributor, service and maintenance company averages 40 per cent of the WA market for the supply and maintenance of heavy machinery, while its nearest competitor averages just half of this.

But the company has achieved more than a strong commercial position – it has successfully married community input with looking after its own needs, building an enviable reputation along the way.

Westrac has been recruiting and training apprentices for more than a quarter of a century and sees this as one way of ensuring the company can employee those with just the right trade skills.

It would cost the company far less to rely on the TAFE system, but Westrac believes its success in servicing heavy plant equipment for the WA agriculture, forestry, marine, construction, power generation and mining industries obligates it to return some sort of benefit to the community.

Next year Westrac will have 123 apprentices on-site from seven trades. The company usually recruits between 26 and 28 new apprentices each year, but for 2002 has decided to take on 44 trainees to cover a forecast near-term skills shortage.

Westrac apprentice master Jim Sewell says the company plans to have 160 apprentices within three years, compared with just 65 in 1995. The company’s reputation has spread beyond its service commitments to the quality of its training program.

Westrac believes its strategy in choosing the right recruits, looking after them and offering a comprehensive training program using the latest in machines and technology is attracting applicants to the company.

From one advertisement in July, Westrac received 800 applications for its 2002 apprentice intake, and can boast a drop-out rate of 2 per cent compared with the State average of 25 per cent.

Mr Sewell says Westrac is keen to choose only those who really want to, and have the aptitude to, be a tradesperson, rather than those motivated mainly by the money on offer, particularly in regional and remote areas.

The company spends four months choosing its new apprentices, usually between 17 and 19 years old, from a selection process involving lots of tests – aptitude, mechanical assembly skills, maths, English and medical – plus an interview.

Those who make it through are then asked to sign a statement of commitment and undergo a monthly one-on-one progress review.

“We try to employ hard and manage easy,” Mr Sewell says.

Building up self-esteem is an important part of Mr Sewell’s job as apprentice master.

“We have an open door approach, and encourage apprentices to talk and to seek advice or help whenever they feel it is necessary,” he says.

Apprentices not only train at Westrac’s 20 business units at the company’s South Guildford headquarters, but also do on-site diagnostics, services and repairs at branches and contractor sites, sometimes living in a major regional town and other times on a more remote location for some weeks.

Westrac general manager for service and parts Jim Cairns says the technical competence of Westrac apprentices is second to none.

The company trains apprentices through the Caterpillar Institute, a 50-50 venture between Westrac and Caterpillar, a company which spends $A3 million per day worldwide on research and development.

A tradesperson’s toolbox has changed considerably from the late 1970s when Mr Cairns was the company’s top apprentice. Now, Westrac apprentices cannot go to a machine to perform diagnostics without a laptop computer.

Training also must accommodate the diversity of machines, the ever-increasing technical difficulties of equipment, a greater emphasis on people skills and image and the ability to manage travel and conditions in a variety of locations.

Mr Cairns says training apprentices in-house is the only way Westrac can ensure it has skilled employees with a broad foundation in maintenance, component rebuilds, hydraulics, electrics and diagnostic testing, who can then go anywhere and do anything with Caterpillar machines.

“It’s strategic,” he says. “In the field we need the diversity and up-to-date skills of our fourth-year apprentices and those recently trained.”

Mr Cairns credits the training strategy for part of the company’s market success.

“We’re local, we’re big and we have both the product line and the support capability,” he says.

Significant drops in the number of apprentices trained over the past two years for the food, metals, mining, manufacturing, electrical and primary industries have prompted the WA Government to warn of a trade skills shortage in the next five years in the absence of companies increasing their apprentice intakes.

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