Bam Ritchies believes that placing skills and staff development at the heart of its work is part of the key to its past and future success
Created in 1963 by an explosives salesman and a mining engineer, the company now known as Bam Ritchies has evolved a great deal since GE was launched, with skills development at the heart of that journey.
One of the first major projects won by Ritchies Equipment, as it was then known, was to blast rock for construction materials for the Lyn Brianne Dam in South Wales in 1969.
“We started as a drill and blast company working in coal mining, quarrying and civil engineering,” says divisional director Kenneth Henderson.
“It was a family-orientated company and the experience and training were passed from father to son. To say it was ad hoc on-the-job training is probably a generous way of describing industry training in the 1960s.”
Regardless, the firm delivered a series of successful schemes across the UK, building towards a breakthrough job in 1977 when it was appointed as main contractor for a major stabilisation project in the Avon Gorge.
This project – which included removal of 2,000t of unstable rock below Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge – put Ritchies firmly in the spotlight. A year later the company joined Edmund Nuttall, beginning its path to becoming part of Royal Bam.
crews with state of the art rigs at glensanda
“We had been working as a subcontractor to Nuttall and worked on some big hydro schemes as well as Victoria Dam in Sri Lanka,” says operations manager Jim Shields.
“Eventually, like all good subcontractors, we were bought by the main contractor and eventually we became Bam Ritchies.”
Training and development changed with the new group structure and the owner’s desire to grow the business.
“Professionally qualified staff who had come through the civil engineering degree route were well catered for in terms of structured professional training,” recalls Henderson. “But the development of plant operatives was driven mainly by operational requirements.”
Shields says the introduction of standards to the industry in the mid-1990s was a turning point.
“We had very skilled operatives but we found it was very difficult to prove this to customers,” says Shields. “We needed to show competency of our operatives so we developed an in-house NVQ assessment centre.”
The company’s first land drilling NVQ was awarded in 1997.
“The awarding body sets out core competencies that an individual has to demonstrate so you have to gather the evidence through one-to-one interviews and observations,” says Shields.
“It was an investment financially and also in time. We took some people out of the business to train them up as assessors and gave them the full-time role of ensuring our staff had the NVQs they needed.”
This started to pay dividends for Ritchies when it won a game-changing project from Defence Estates to install 11,000 soil nails on a 400m-high slope in Gibraltar.
“We had a turnover of about £12M at the time, and the final bill for the East Side Water Catchment scheme came to around £18M,” says Shields.
“It was one of the first jobs we won from the ability to demonstrate the technical competencies of the operatives who would deliver it. A lot of bespoke drilling equipment was designed and manufactured in-house and the work was all done by rope-access on a big site so we really needed to trust the operatives and demonstrate that we had the people to put our method into practice.”
hinkley nightshift drilling
The size and profile of the Gibraltar scheme put Ritchies into a new marketplace and the firm won the Dounreay Shaft Isolation Project, which was one of the most technically complex and challenging grouting jobs ever undertaken in the UK.
Inspired by the success of the NVQ programme, Ritchies hunted out more opportunities to upskill its workers.
British Drilling Association accreditation was becoming an important stamp for ground investigation drillers so at the start of the new millennium Ritchies started pushing experienced people through this process.
“This gave a qualification to people who had worked in the industry for decades but didn’t have a formal qualification to show for the experience,” says Henderson.
A fresh level of evolution since the start of this decade has led to the firm treat drilling qualifications as professional, rather than vocational, training.
“There was a two-tier system in the industry,” says Shields. “There were degree-qualified engineers and managers; and there were operatives who drilled or had other specialist competencies. We wanted to treat everyone the same.”
This started with an extension of professional development reviews.
“Rather than sitting down with a department manager with a one-page tick box looking at issues like attendance and ability, to rate them as a player, we now ensure operatives have similar professional development objectives as set for our engineers and managers,” says Shields. “We identify talent.”
In 2012 the Bam Academy was launched, with training modules leading to level 3 NVQs and this allows Ritchies to continue building its pipeline of skills and moving people through the business.
“We now have many people who have gained professional qualifications and one of our staff recently gained chartered engineer status having joined as a driller 30 years ago,” says Henderson with pride.
Elsewhere Bam Ritchies has aligned itself with the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and now has 45 registered engineering technicians through that route.
Ritchies benefits hugely from its relationships within the Bam Group but also develops its own systems and ideas where it feels this is beneficial.
One such example came with the appointment of Kirsty Hughes as learning and development advisor.
“This was a role we created to deal with everyone from trainee lab technicians to project managers,” says Henderson. “We are a specialist part of the business and we wanted someone who would give us control over specialist training.”
In the last couple of years, operatives have begun to benefit from digital awareness training through the process managed by Hughes.
On the high-profile Hinkley Point C new nuclear power station project in Somerset, Ritchies is working on ways of using GPS to give rig operators certainty of where to drill.
“When you get in one of our drilling rigs now it’s like an aeroplane,” says Shields. “We create blast hole patterns to go on a USB stick to go into a drilling rig computer and create 3D models.”
So operatives today may be doing a similar job to their predecessors in the 1960s, but they are doing it in an entirely different way.
“There is a lot of legislation and innovation that has come in over the years and the equipment has moved on hugely,” says Henderson. “In the old hydraulic drilling machines you pulled a lever and something happened. Now you have complex pieces of kit costing hundreds of thousands of pounds which optimise the driller’s inputs to achieve the most efficient production.
“We are not just taking the operatives with us, which is critical, but many of our digital innovations come from the young workforce on site who grew up with technology and who we’ve trained, upskilled and given confidence to.”
Training and skill levels have evolved hugely over the past five decades but the company has more to do.
“The next step is improving the diversity of our operative teams,” says Henderson. “Th at is the way to get to the next level of performance.
“There is no longer the obstacle of machinery requiring brute strength to load equipment. Modern rigs require fine motor skills, intelligence and the ability to learn new techniques and we want to attract more women to these roles to continue to improve our business.”
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