Stuart Graham, who started his own business in 2016, just three months after completing his apprenticeship in Electrical Installation with South West College (SWC), says the education he received through apprenticeships has been a central part of his career success.
Stuart, from Fivemiletown, came to SWC after completing his GCSE’s at Fivemiletown College and started at Level 2 before working his way up to level 3 at the college. He says: ‘The process of an apprenticeship is so important for anyone interested in electrical work. The balance of college study and placement experience is vital. You need both these aspects, because there are certain things you’ll only learn in a classroom and certain things you’ll only earn on the job.’
Throughout his time at SWC, Stuart experienced working with companies such as GR White and Son, while studying all the way to a Level 5 qualification. This helped prepare him to start his own business, Graham Electrical, although he admits that when the decision came it was still a big step.
‘I started my own business just three months after graduation, in September 2016. It was a big jump for me. I had a few contacts, plenty of experience under my belt, and I knew the work was there, but there are certain things to figure out and lots of aspects of business which you don’t truly experience until you have your own. It’s definitely a learning curve, but the business is great now. There’s so much work, and the last twelve months have been particularly busy. I think a lot of people have been using the time at home to think about home improvements, and maybe using money they’ve saved on holidays or anything else to invest in them.’
It’s nearly ten years since Stuart started his journey at South West College, and in that time he has seen positive changes in the electrical industry. He says, ‘When I first started, I don’t think there was as much electrical work as there is now. I think I saw things at a low point at first, but I’ve seen a steady improvement in that regard during the time I’ve been working. Now, I don’t think there are enough young people getting into this line of work, so there’s a great opportunity there for those that do. I’d certainly encourage any young person considering it.’
A significant part of Stuart’s time at SWC was his success in SkillBuild , a multi-trade competition for construction trainees and apprentices in the UK. He won first place at the 2015 SkillBuild NI Finals ahead of stiff competition from other colleges, an achievement in part led to him winning Apprentice of the Year at Northern Irelands Electrical Awards.
Stuart was nominated for the award by SWC and his then employers, GR White and Son. Continuing this success, Stuart went on to be named the UK's best young electrician when he won the SkillELECTRIC grand final at the NEC in Birmingham. Stuart won the competition after scoring top marks in a two-day electrical installation task which had to be completed in line with industry standards against a strict timeframe.
Today, Stuart looks back on these competitions as a highlight of his time at SWC, both for the success and the unique aspect they added to his training. He says, ‘SkillBuild and competitions like it were a big deal for me. They bring an intense level of pressure to your work. There’s nothing new to the skills required or the technical work being done, but your under strict time restrictions and in a unique pressured environment. The success was fantastic and I found that it gave me something unique when I started my own business because I had the positive reputation that comes with those sort of awards.’
Given his success during his college days and his success since, it’s no surprise that Stuart looks forward to connecting with education again in the future, either for himself or by working with new apprentices. He says, ‘I have hopes to do a Foundation Degree in the future, although work is so busy that it’s hard to know when exactly I’ll be able to do that. I think a degree would be brilliant to have, because the more experience I get the more I see the benefit of having a speciality, an area of expertise in this line of work.
‘I’d also like to take on apprenticeships in the future. I know better than most how useful a second pair of hands can be for employers and of course how beneficial the experience is for the student. Being an apprentice played a huge role in getting me to where I am now, so I’d love to be part of giving someone else that same opportunity.’