APPRENTICE MASTER: Jason Barry (right) on the job with Paul Nicholls.
APPRENTICE MASTER: Jason Barry (right) on the job with Paul Nicholls.

What is this boss' secret to trainees?

WHEN a 12-year-old kid takes an interest in mechanical things, buys a car when he's 13, paints it and replaces its engine and works as a mechanical trades assistant before completing an apprenticeship, you start to think he might have a clue.

And when that same bloke amasses qualifications in engineering, training and assessment, is an accredited vehicle engineer doing VASS inspections and engineering reports for truck dealers and body builders in his district, you know he really does have a clue.

So there was no surprise when Jason Barry started his own business in the Victorian border city of Wodonga. The surprise was the type of business.

Rather than follow the expected path to mechanical engineering, Mr Barry went off on a tangent, opening Border Crane Consultants, specialising in the repair, maintenance, installation and servicing of all types of loading systems for heavy vehicles.

Border Crane Consultants has in the last nine years become a national entity, with staff travelling the eastern seaboard and venturing into South Australia and Western Australia.

Mr Barry's abilities were even called into service by the Australian Defence Force to develop a safety and compliance upgrade package for cranes that had been rolled-out nationally and installed on more than 200 cranes.

Such a specialist industry requires specialist staff and Mr Barry has a slightly unorthodox approach when it comes to gaining and training apprentices.

"Our main core apprenticeship is what's called a mechanical fitter, which is basically a cross between an industrial mechanic and a fitter-machinist,” he said.

"We've got our own paint shop so we've got painters, we've got our own boilermaker (and) we've got our own auto staff. We've got all sorts of trades.”

Advertising on the Seek website and in the local newspaper attracts applications with the promises of above-award wages, reasonable overtime and travel - all good hooks.

"Also there's the diversity in the work,” Mr Barry said.

"As opposed to doing work for a truck dealership and just changing the oil and filters, greasing the hubs and changing seals, our guys get to do a bit of fabrication, some electrical work, some hydraulic maintenance and everything from painting to machine shop engineering.

"They're not stuck in the same rut and they get to focus on where they want to go as they go through the business.”

Interestingly, Mr Barry said some of his best apprentices had been mature-age applicants.

"They seem to be a bit easier to keep happy as opposed to the people who come in green,” he said.

"An adult apprentice who is still with us is now our workshop supervisor (and) I've got a qualified aviation engineer who just finished his apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer.”

His current apprentice roster - he has seven - bristles with 30-somethings who have had work and life experiences rather than coming straight from school.

Retaining workers once they were qualified, he said, was not always a necessity.

"The ones you want to keep seem to stay around,” he said.

"Our senior technical adviser started as an apprentice. He was the first apprentice when we started this business eight or nine years ago and he's still with us.”