Former SELECT President John Noble says he’s still going strong after four decades on the tools, while one of the apprentices starting out under his watchful eye has certainly had an eventful introduction to the industry
After spending 40 years looking after his own business, you’d be forgiven for thinking John Noble would be ready to put his feet up. Not a bit of it. Whenever he gets the chance, he’s ready to get on the tools and help customers solve their electrical problems.
It’s that spirit that’s helped John create a thriving 15-strong firm and develop a career that saw him become President of SELECT.
John’s background is more agricultural than industrial. He explained: “I was brought up on a sheep farm at Kirknewton in the Pentlands. However, I was always a little more mechanically minded and happier driving around on the tractor than working with the livestock.
“My gran had a shop in Balerno opposite an electrical shop run by John Halliday. In 1973, when I was leaving school, she told him I needed a job and he offered me an apprenticeship.”
John qualified in 1976 and in 1979, when he was just 21, he made the life-changing decision to set up on his own. “I’d been running a couple of jobs for John, to some extent supervising guys who had taught me during my apprenticeship,” he said. “I found that a little awkward and thought if I could do that for John I could do it for myself.”
At the time he was still staying at home with his parents. “When I began, I had around three or four weeks’ work,” he went on. “However, people started to asking me to do jobs and after a year I took on an apprentice, Gordon Craig. He ended up staying with me for around 15 years before setting up his own company and becoming a member of SELECT.”
Things continued expanding. In 1980 John rented a small industrial unit in Dalkeith and in 1985 the firm took over its current site in Bonnyrigg, creating a custom-built unit in 2007. But relentless growth doesn’t necessarily mean relentless success, as John discovered.
He said: “In the 2000s we got very busy and I ended up taking on a lot of people. At one point we were up to 36 staff. However, although we doubled our turnover, our profit halved. So we decided that wasn’t the way to go. We scaled things back and now we have 11 guys on the books – three apprentices and eight electricians.”
It’s a real family business, with John’s wife, Lisa and son, Alasdair, both part of the operation. John said: “Alasdair came into the business when he left school, serving his apprenticeship and working on the tools. He now does a lot of the certification work but, like me, he still goes out on jobs. If a customer phones and everyone else is busy, one of us will jump in a van to go and help.
“We pride ourselves on being a 24/7 company. We have a contract with Scottish Gas which means we do jobs in the evenings and have other clients who operate around the clock. We might get a call from a farmer at 5am and we’ll still respond.”
Indeed, the firm has a diverse client base with customers including the Eastern Western Motor Group, West Lothian Leisure, an international poultry business, and the Forestry Commission. They have even worked on the island of Iona for Historic Environment Scotland.
Plenty of changes
Since qualifying back in 1976 John has seen a lot of changes in the sector, not least the increase in technology. “When I started out we would never have tackled a job like data cabling,” he said. “Now we’re also doing integrated systems, CCTV, intruder alarms, fire alarms, Wi-Fi systems and so on. These days an electrician has to be competent in lots of disciplines.”
Other developments he highlighted are labour saving advances such as the increased use of off-site fabrication and ‘plug and play’ equipment.
John said: “Things are still changing; with the popularity of electrical vehicles we are now involved in the installation of vehicle charging points. You never stop learning and every day is a school day. You have to evolve if you want to survive. If you don’t someone else will. It’s all about providing clients with the level of service they expect.” That service doesn’t only depend on the quality of the work you do but how you present yourself. John emphasised: “I constantly remind our guys that 75% of our customers will never see our premises, so they are our public face. How they present themselves when they meet a client is very important. We provide branded workwear and run a fleet of vans that are tidy and washed weekly.”
Doing his duty
Part of delivering great service is being up to date with the latest developments, and the best way to do that is being a member of SELECT. But John isn’t just a Member, he enjoyed a three-year stint as President between 2011 and 2014.
He revealed: “I became Edinburgh branch chairman in my late 20s. I did two years as Vice President of SELECT, three years as President and three years as Immediate Past President. Usually you do them for two years each, but due to unforeseen circumstances I spent an extra two years as an office bearer.”
John said he loved his time in the role: “I took it on when the business was running well so I could give up enough time to do the job well. I thought there was no use in being a president who simply turns up at the odd jolly and is not actively involved. During my time I devoted at least two days a week to the role and regularly attended quarterly meetings at our branches. I enjoyed getting to know Members and made a lot of friendships that I still have.”
He believes SELECT is vital in maintaining standards and assisting members through training, technical helplines, HR support and keeping them abreast of the latest industry news. And he said becoming a member is one of the best things any electrician can do, insisting: “You can join other certification bodies, but SELECT is our association.”
Meantime, despite reaching such a major milestone John has no thoughts of retiring: “To be honest, I enjoy being on site rather than in the office. If I had the choice I would rather be out and about solving problems.
“In particular, I like tracing faults, especially when it comes to large agricultural machinery like grain dryers and so on. Getting them up and running again gives you a great sense of satisfaction. I love doing new installations, too.
“I’m 62 this year and still relish getting up in the morning and going to work. My plan when I started out was to get to 55 and then retire. But that’s come and gone and I’m still here enjoying every minute of it.”
Harnessing The power of learning
“In this industry, any firm is only as good as its worst electrician, so training is crucial,” John says. He’s believed in the power of learning since his firm’s earliest days and it’s one of the reasons he has trained more than 40 apprentices over the years.
“You have to invest in your people and you reap the results,” he says. “I have guys who have been with me for 30 years and more.”
He went on: “Basically, we have trained an apprentice every year – this year I’ve taken on two. Around 25% of these are now running their own company, while others have managerial roles in various firms. I think we’ve had 10 SELECT Members who came up as our apprentices.”
Needless to say, John has noticed that the apprentice experience is very different these days: “In the 70s I was part of the first group that went to college. Back then it was day release, now it’s block release and there’s much more off-site training.
“When I was learning the trade, our team of four electricians and two apprentices had one electric drill between us! If you couldn’t access it you used a hand drill or brace and bit.”
John believes the changes are for the better: “Previously, if you were with a company that only worked on major power stations you wouldn’t get the chance to do domestic work. But now we produce more all-round electricians with a better skill base.”
He is equally encouraged by the number of trainees, insisting: “We do well in comparison with other industries and countries. Per head of population we train far more apprentices than in England.
“A few years ago we were losing around 1,000 electricians a year because people were retiring and leaving the industry, yet only training around 300 apprentices. Now we’re back up to around 700. But we’re still not training enough to fill the skills gap, so we can’t rest on our laurels.”
The year of all years
It’s fair to say it’s been the year of all years for John Noble apprentice Kyle Macintosh.
The last 12 months have seen him successfully complete the final year of his apprenticeship – only to endure a near-fatal seizure and major operation.
He explained: “In June, we were working at a poultry farm, one of our regular jobs. It’s a place you have to shower in and out.
“When I was showering out I had a seizure. The guys I was with were waiting in the van and decided to come and look for me.
“When I didn’t answer they had to break the door down and found me, covered in blood, lying in the shower. They called an ambulance, and after receiving a CT scan at hospital, it was discovered I had a tumour.”
The timing of this incident and the October date for his subsequent operation posed a problem. Kyle was due back in hospital only two weeks after his final trade test. Although he could have delayed the test, he decided to go for it – and achieved 97%.
All of this has reinforced Kyle’s strong faith in his employer. He said he’s received great support from everyone at John Noble during his health problems, and, as far as learning goes, the firm’s wide client base has helped him gain experience that’s not available elsewhere.
He said: “We work across the board – industrial, domestic, commercial. People in my college class have not had the same variety of work. In fact, at one point our lecturer handed out a sheet with a lots of different areas and asked us to cross off which of these we’d been involved in. He didn’t believe it when I ticked them all!”
After going in for surgery Kyle was recently told that 100 per cent of his tumour has been removed.
He revealed: “I previously suffered from epilepsy and the surgery has stopped that too. Now I have a smaller operation to go through to fix my shoulder, which was injured following falls I had because of my fits and seizure.
“I reckon I’ll be back to normal about a month after that and desperate to get back to work.”