Training offers a ticket to work

Photo: Christine Cornege

By Nick Smith, New Zealand Herald

From truck drivers, to stevedores, to forklift operators - they all need someone to show them the ropes.

Kevin Wall faces quite a dilemma in presenting his company's credentials to the Herald - given that his employees may soon play a part in the bitterest Auckland waterfront dispute since 1951.

Commercial education company AMS Group, which Wall wholly owns, this year bought Start Training, a company that specialises in training stevedores, particularly casual contractors.

Its graduates will be the type of worker required to man Auckland's beleaguered port, where they will be accused of being scabs.

Wall doesn't want to be embroiled in this divisive debate; he trains people to work. But he agrees it must be broached and dealt with swiftly and succinctly.

Here's how he sees it: "Auckland is looking at replicating the Tauranga [Port] model and it's all about driving efficiency ... [The] increased number of contractor organisations delivering stevedoring services ... provides an opportunity for us."

Besides, it's not all about replacing union labour, he says. "We all know that volumes through the ports are going to increase, so there's always going to be a requirement for more people on the ports. Given the variable nature of the beast, there's always a large component of casual staff."

It's easy to understand his unwillingness to take a clear stance. He bought the company because it was a great fit with his existing business and would help achieve his ambition of taking a $2.5 million revenue company to $5 million in a short time.

AMS started as a Waikato company offering training to truck and forklift drivers. Wall, an accountant, came on board in 2008, took a half-share the following year and bought out the company in 2010.

The business was expanded to wider licensing areas, dealing with everything from driver licensing for trucks, forklifts, heavy machinery and dangerous goods transport to training for people working at heights (power poles, elevated platforms), confined spaces (sewers, drains etc), and basic first aid, as well as health and safety.

Clients run the gamut from manufacturing and warehousing, civil construction and infrastructure, transport, cold storage and city council operations.

Since 2008 AMS has doubled in size and, Wall says, will increase revenue by 15 per cent and net profit by 20 per cent this financial year.

Much of his work has involved "centralising" operations to make AMS the one-stop shop for big businesses seeking to be good employers (and comply with relevant legislation).

"We live in a compliance-driven country - and I'm not saying that's a bad thing but it dictates what we do and that provides opportunities for companies like ourselves," he says.

One of those regulatory opportunities, Wall points out, is the barriers to entry his industry faces. His company is audited by the NZ Transport Authority and the NZ Qualifications Authority. "If you wanted to set up a private establishment to do the things we're doing - well, it's a big job and that creates a good barrier for us."

AMS has North Island coverage for its services and will soon open a Christchurch office to achieve Wall's ambition of creating a national company. A key element in its expansion has been the creation of YouDrive, a driver licensing tuition course aimed at teenagers.

Wall is passionate about the pressing but complicated issue of youth unemployment. "Once you leave school without a [driver's] licence, you've got nowhere to go; there are no opportunities," he says, noting that there are often no formalised training programmes available to pupils due to funding.

He blames this situation on the disproportionate allocation of education resources to tertiary education, at the expense of industry training.

"You've got three groups: the ones destined to go to university because their parents are professionals and you've got the group that are practically-minded and will go into trades - but you've also got that expanding group in the middle that don't have options and are more than capable but need some guidance."

Nearly one in five people, aged under-25, is unemployed and 27 per cent of this group are teenagers, the highest level of youth joblessness since the early 1990s.

"People are telling us 'we love [our programme] but we haven't got the funding'," he says.

"We've trimmed the costs back as much as we can but ... ultimately we need to invest more money into that group in the middle."

"We need to get back to basics, so let's concentrate on foundation skills, like getting a licence."