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Highly commended at last year’s SHP Rising Star Awards, Lamara Martin, alongside her Manager and mentor, Milton Walcott, speaks to SHP Editor Mark Glover about her achievements so far and why she one day hopes to fill her boss’ shoes.
The SHP in-box regularly receives press releases from concerned trade associations lamenting the low number of young people entering their professions.
Construction seems to be most vulnerable with statistics suggesting labour won’t square off the demand for housing, and as experienced workers choose to retire or leave the sector, there’s a very real danger of a knowledge gap appearing between generations.
These same concerns are often aired during conversations I have with those in health and safety. Graduates, or young people generally, are unlikely to consider a career in the profession: perhaps through lack of awareness of opportunity; or the long-standing (but outdated) stigma around clipboards and red tape.
Lamara Martin is Health and Safety Advisor at Complete Fixing Solutions, an installation business based in London, and is an example of the trend potentially bucking.
Last year, Lamara was highly commended in the Rising Star category of the 2022 SHP Awards. At the time, she had just successfully completed her apprenticeship and when we caught up, had been in her newly qualified role for over a year, so I ask how it’s all going. Her response mirrors those who have been in the profession far longer than her. “I like being able to see the change I can make and I like being able to change people’s perspectives and make them feel differently about what they do.”
Her swift development is in part testament to her Manager and Mentor, Milton Walcott, an experienced health and safety professional himself with a career spanning 13 years and a varied CV across a range of verticals including retail and construction.
Like most, his journey into safety began on the shop floor. His craft was carpentry, but an accident while drilling would see him off work, where he used the time to study health and safety, mainly as an option if he was unable to resume his carpentry career.
The more he learned, however, the more his interest grew. His decision to pursue the profession was made following a chance coming together that would perhaps mould his future interests around apprenticeships. “While I was studying, I met my own mentor,” he remembers, “he showed me that it could be a profitable and satisfying career and I just took it from there and haven’t really looked back.”
It’s nice to hear the health and safety baton being passed to Milton and then in turn to Lamara. As Milton admits, he only acknowledged it as a genuine career after someone turned his head. So how did Lamara come to find herself working in the profession? Was it ever on her radar? “I actually studied history at university so never thought about going into health and safety,” she says with a smile. “It was Milton who told me about the role. He said it was an apprenticeship but to begin with I was rather apprehensive about signing-up.” Having just graduated, Lamara’s resistance came from the feeling that an apprenticeship would be something of an academic step backward. Milton was able to put her mind at ease, and as happened to him, was able to lay out how fruitful a career it can be. “I did some research on the role and saw how much opportunity there was to progress,” Lamara says, mirroring her mentor’s experience 13 years ago to begin her own journey in the profession.
Lamara’s submission for the SHP Rising Star award, a strongly contested category that receives many nominations, chimed with the judges who felt her identification of on-site communication issues, and subsequent remedy, showed initiative and gumption.
Of course, her impressive and rapid ascent through the programme was also noted – Lamara completed a two-year SHE Technician Apprenticeship within 16 months, passing with Distinction – but it was applying the learning that would align with the judge’s criteria. I ask if she was proud of her achievements. Humbly, she admits to being surprised at her grade – “I was very shocked at my result.” – but she talks enthusiastically about the solution she drove having identified communication was lacking between site management and site staff during unannounced audits of their construction sites.
Having raised the issue and following discussions within the HS team, Lamara felt that site management would benefit from a suite of readily available digital ToolBox Talks.
She would hone the resource over time and in later versions make the content easily accessible. “I started compiling the first edition only a few months into my apprenticeship,” she recalls. “As my knowledge in the profession grew, I was able to add more information and improve the book in a second edition and incorporated other initiatives such as QR codes. It gave our workforce instant access to important information and documents such as accident and near miss report forms or our health and safety policy.”
The initiative garnered instant results as communication became streamlined and clearer with audits the important benefactor. Today, the resource, which covers over 100 topics, has received commendation from contractors and even sub-contractors; one client even wants to include their logo on the next print run.
I interview the pair on Teams who share a camera as I ask the questions. I see Milton squirm slightly as I ask Lamara what impact he’s made on her journey. “He’s been the most important influence on my career,” she says. “He’s the one who introduced me to the sector, and he’s supported me throughout. He’s always been there for me…and he’s never made me feel like I’m pestering him with anything that I want to ask. He’s always there for me.” I turn to Milton and ask what it means to him to see Lamara achieving so much so soon. “What stuck out for me was that she had never worked in the profession before, and within such a short amount of she’s proven to her peers how much value she can add to the sector.”
He continues, warming to the topic, pleased to share Lamara’s success: “She was very open and eager to learn, so it’s actually very easy to teach someone when they’re in that frame of mind. Once we saw her commitment to completing set tasks and her positive response to feedback…she connected quickly within our team which just showed her adaptability to a new environment. “She’s fitted in not only through her work effort but also personally…she’s well-liked and she’s trusted as a professional and a trusted member of the team.”
On Lamara’s adaptability he praises her efforts around messaging and in particular the way she’s taken to the construction sector, a traditionally male-dominated environment where, if we’re honest, a young female apprentice may feel intimidated. “She was able to go in there and stand her ground and assert herself well and get the job done. It came from strong interpersonal skills and effective communication…she was always very clear,” Milton says proudly. I ask Lamara if she was nervous the first time she walked on-site. She mentions her mentor again. “I thought it was very challenging at first,” she recalls. “But I was supported by Milton a lot. I was never thrown in at the deep end, but it was still very nerve-racking.”
It’s clear the role Milton (a Chartered Member of IOSH) has played in Lamara’s development and her steady induction on-site is another example of his skill around bringing through young people. It’s a skill set he’s developed himself – he’s currently completing an Ofqual Level 7 Diploma in Strategic Health & Safety Leadership and Management – but like Lamara, it’s his own self-drive that’s pushing him forward. He was heavily involved in the design of the company’s apprenticeship programme specifically aimed at creating opportunities for local young people. He also visits schools and colleges in the area, flying the flag for health and safety as a career. It’s clear he’s in his element. “I feel like I’m getting close to the apex of my career,” he says. “At the moment my interest is now revolved around fostering diversity within our workforce.”
Complete Fixing Solutions is forward-thinking enough to acknowledge the importance of diversity in its apprenticeship programme and clearly takes pride in young people coming through its doors. In May, it made the top 50 list of SME Apprenticeship Employers – an initiative of the Department of Education – and towards the end of last year, won the SME Employer of the year at the Multicultural Apprenticeship Awards.
It’s refreshing also to see an SME displaying this level of buy-in when it comes to diversity and apprenticeships. We hear regularly of larger, national or global enterprises sharing their new programmes, often launched with a glitzy PR campaign and a slew of press releases and events. All of this, of course, is great and essential but to hear of the smaller firms ploughing this furrow seems just as important. However, it wasn’t a straightforward sell for Milton, who had to pitch the idea to his CEO “I explained that the landscape of our company wasn’t reflecting the area I was working in in London,” he says, “But he [the CEO] was up for it. He was up for investing and changing the outlook of the company. I explained how it would help future-proof the business by creating our own workforce.”
How important was that buy-in? “It was pivotal, the most vital thing. Without it, it wouldn’t be possible.”
This apprenticeship scheme is a success. The awards recognition is evidence of this, but the rise of Lamara’s career is perhaps the strongest proof. I learn she is being trained to ultimately take on Milton’s role, another affirmation of the programme. Succession planning is a key component of what a robust apprenticeship journey should deliver.
After all, with the best will in the world around diversity, a business case still exists and those apprentices coming off the conveyor belt need to fit the company’s requirements. Currently Milton oversees a team of 10 apprentices, an impressive number given the programme started with two. The increase means Lamara – as part of her development – is stepping in to guide those coming through. As we wrap up the interview I wonder how she feels about the mentee becoming the mentor?
“I’d like to be able to help someone in the way that Milton has helped me and to influence someone and help them navigate their career through health and safety,” she says confidently. If Lamara continues to progress the way she has been then it won’t be long before she steps into Milton’s shoes, and who knows, maybe she’ll spearhead the next generation of young people into the profession.