Shepherd Construction is building a name for its people development
activities. Stephanie Sparrow met its personnel director Sharon Copland-Jones
Shepherd Construction has long been applauded for its training achievements.
It claims to be the first national construction company to achieve Investors in
People (IIP) in 1992 and passed its fourth reassessment in 2001. It also boasts
three National Training Awards and won the Contract Journal Training Award 2002
– the publication noted it had invested £1.8m in training a year – an average
of £2,236 per employee.
Earlier this year, Shepherd Construction joined the first wave of private
sector firms to be awarded the Quality Mark for the quality of its information
and guidance about learning and work from the DfES-backed Guidance Accreditation
Yet trying to pick out the strands of this acclaimed training activity from
the rest of its people agenda is a tricky task, as people, training and the
business mission are densely interwoven. Of course, this is as it should be,
and as such meets the intentions of personnel director Sharon Copland-Jones
whose conversation about organisational growth is peppered with phrases such as
"cohesive" and "organic".
It is a challenge to run cohesive people strategies across a construction
company, where the nature of the business is to design then go out and build at
a broad range of developments across the UK. These currently include the £23m
Imperial Wharf site in Fulham, London, and a £7m cancer research site for
Manchester’s Christie Hospital.
Shepherd’s operations are managed through a network of regional offices,
while the head office in York is home to the procurement team and operational
support functions, including Copland-Jones. And this year saw the replacement
of a more office-based training department which had been dedicated to
"The structure got in the way of being involved with people’s
development," says Copland-Jones.
The company is unusual in its sector for the number of full-timers it employs
– 1,100 – which includes 400 skilled craftspeople. These are scattered across
various sites and Copland-Jones has accommodated their training needs by
establishing a team of four learning advisers with a regional remit (from her
staff of 12) who go out to the sites an average of three days a week as well as
providing online support.
She is quite excited about their input. The learning advisers deal with
everything from induction to performance reviews for their dedicated group of
"They build up a relationship with their learners and they care. This
strategy is about employees’ longer-term futures with the business, so the
advisers have access to their learning agreements and look at all aspects of
their development." This approach means learning happens in tandem with
personal and business needs.
Copland-Jones, who sees her remit as "working for the board on the
people agenda" and is quick to acknowledge the support of managing
director Vaughn Burnand who took the post three years ago. Burnand is
rigorously pursuing a change programme, based on visions and values he drew up
with senior members of the company. Copland-Jones has to make sure this is put
into practice. She also credits IIP as firm foundation for development
"We were one of the first major contractors to get Investors in People
and I think that’s when we started to become much more strategic from a
training and development point of view. We built on that annually and we’re now
reached the stage where we’re more about a link between the company values and
employee competence and behaviour," she says.
In an industry which traditionally bemoans the lack of skilled operatives,
Shepherd Construction is playing its part in raising the bar and part of its
education and development philosophy is to link activities to a nationally
"We knew we couldn’t offer people jobs for life as such. Although we
have an incredible length of service of 11-12 years on average, we felt we
needed to ensure that people have the skills and remain employable within the
industry. So all skills development that we work towards is either linked to a
National Vocational Qualification or a technical qualification that is
recognised externally," she says.
"The other driver is that we are ultimately selling the skills and
expertise of our people, so it’s important evidence for us to show to our
clients," says Copland-Jones, who keeps herself up-to-date with client
Shepherd is very keen on communicating its vision to employees of where the
business is heading over the next three years. It runs a roadshow every year
and is keen to reach its staff and invite their input. Empl-oyee feedback and
its response is well circulated, including being published in its Vision and
Copland-Jones is backing this effort by doing as much as she can to make
learning and development high-profile activities among the employees. Part of
this process involves making information readily available about the skills,
jobs and experience required to progress at Shepherd Construction. It forms a
key component of the company intranet, known as Localnet. The Localnet displays
the results of a competence-mapping process created by Copland-Jones and her team,
based on the values which managing director Burnand has established (see box
above left). She knows that it is not unique to be competence- based but
believes what sets the company apart is the breadth of its cover.
"We are unique in the range we cover, from apprentice to main board
level. You may find other construction businesses [doing something similar] but
they don’t approach their strategic support services, admin or clerical as we
do. We look at what everybody’s contribution is and try to engage them,"
"We profile each of the occupations by the essential skills knowledge
and experience so they can use the Localnet to work out what they need to do to
develop themselves. We encourage them to complete a learning styles
questionnaire, and we’ve developed different types of learning interventions to
offer greater flexibility so they don’t have to be pulled off site to attend
workshops. We are looking at e-learning for example."
The key to Localnet lies in its accessibility. Shepherd is committed to
having PCs in every on-site induction room by the end of this fiscal year, so
any employee can find out about jobs, training and progression. Giving IT
systems a high profile out on the sites also works well for Shepherd, as it is
committed to establishing a minimum IT literacy standard throughout the company
via a skills matrix and customised training.
Copland-Jones has collated responses from 50 employees keen to share their
success across Localnet "so other employees can see what it takes to get
that job". This builds on a sense of personal responsibility for employees
to develop themselves and others. It also fits in with her definition that
leadership is "a process not a job". The performance management
system actively encourages managers to develop people and demonstrate evidence
that they are doing that, in keeping with this philosophy.
Managers get further back-up in people competence from a modular programme
developed in conjunction with BTEC called People Skills. It covers all key
areas from recruitment and induction through to how to identify training needs
and how to coach or mentor – Copland-Jones is keen that line managers
understand the difference between these terms. The managers work in
cross-functional cohorts which have the advantage of breaking down barriers
from across the business.
Making the link
As part of linking training and values Copland-Jones is hoping that these
line managers will understand that each person is recognised for what they can
contribute. The new competence approach emphasises playing to your strengths
and those of the team. "We are as good as the dynamic of the team. If you
stop being individuals we’ll stop being good at what we do."
Older and senior managers are soon to come under the microscope. "I want
to validate the currency of their people management ability. Just because
someone went on a course five years ago doesn’t mean it’s still valid or that
they are competent in those areas. I’ll be looking at refreshers and other
things because people can always develop," she says.
As well as progressing the staff who are in place, Copland-Jones has to keep
a constant eye on retention and recruitment. She believes the improved access
to learning is having an impact on retention. "Looking back about five years
our average was 25 per cent in staff turnover which is about the industry norm.
Last year we got it down to 18 per cent and this year its 12 per cent. Our
target is 5 per cent. If people can see that you are giving them learning
opportunities then they will stay with you."
Shepherd has also re-thought its approach to recruitment by launching an
educational liaison strategy. The fun side of this was ‘a go out and grab
undergraduates’ attention’ approach run via a publicity campaign in conjunction
with the Black Sheep Brewery, North Yorkshire. The campaign, which offered
trendy T-shirts and beer was able to convey that the Shepherd was looking for
talented individuals as opposed to "the average member of the flock".
Of course there are more serious elements to university liaison too, such as
Shepherd providing guest speakers and allowing universities access to its
technical library. The company also runs a Schools Challenge where pupils from
senior schools nationwide compete for the chance to win a £10,000 project build
which will benefit their establishment or community.
The end result of these initiatives is to create a buzz around the industry
and its possibilities, says Copland- Jones. "We’ve hit our recruitment
targets as a result of these initiatives, and raised our profile as an
employer. Some people have joined us as graduates, others as apprentices.
"The Schools Challenge, where the shortlisted candidates visited us
here and worked on their designs and presentations, has also improved our
inter-company teamworking and development of our younger managers," she
Rolling out the competence programme will be Copland-Jones’s next major
"I have a holistic vision for what we’re doing with people management,
but if I communicate in terms of ‘we’re doing this, this and this’ it will just
leave me coming out with initiative after initiative. What I have learnt is
that I have to communicate it in a holistic way. My challenge is to make
employees and the business see the linkages," she said.
2000 Promoted to personnel director, Shepherd Construction
1996 Personnel manager for Shepherd Southern Division
1995 Career development manager, Shepherd
1994 HRD consultant, McCourt Newton
1990-1994 Personnel manager, operations, Network SouthEast, Croydon
1990-1992 Personnel Manager, engineering, Network SouthEast
1986-1990 Personnel administration manager Swansilver (trading as the Body
Inside shepherd’s competency framework
As part of a change programme started nearly three years ago,
Shepherd has identified key values: ranging from commitment and honesty to
innovation, customer focus openness, safety and teamwork. It is now putting in
place an underpinning competency framework, where every occupation has been
mapped out in terms of skills and knowledge, which forms the basis of a
performance management and personal development review system. From March this year, the system was being
rolled out for senior managers and head office staff.