Posted in Features

Power to the People

Power to the People Posted on 6 January 2022

Graham Chatham, City Building

As one of Scotland’s biggest employers of apprentices, City Building has a unique story to tell. Neil Braidwood speaks to Gavin Hay and Graham Chatham to find out more.

I meet Gavin Hay at City Building’s Queenslie Training Centre in Glasgow. The company has a long history of investing in their workforce, and Gavin is living proof of this.

“I joined the company as a joiner in 1990,” Gavin tells me. I worked towards an HNC, then a postgraduate diploma, and I now have a masters in business administration! The policy within City Building is to help people get to where they want to go. I’m currently Head of People and Development.” 

He’s a great advert for the company that started in 2006 as a Construction Company from the former Direct Labour Organisation (DLO) of Glasgow City Council. Then in 2017 it became 50/50 jointly owned between Glasgow City Council (GCC) and the Wheatley Group (WHG). The staff are contracted to work on Wheatley Housing Group properties as well as Glasgow City Council’s properties. With the new arrangement between GCC and WHG, it’s grown to much more than that. As well as carrying out essential repairs and maintenance to these properties, the company builds new housing stock, schools, care homes and community centres.

With more than 2,000 staff on its books, the company is looking to relocate its training college to Edgefauld Road, next to its manufacturing factory Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries (RSBi) in the Springburn area of Glasgow. And who better to build it than the staff themselves! Many apprentices will get their first taste of practical experience on this project, which has ambitious renewable elements to the build. 

“The new college will be super insulated and state of the art,” says Gavin proudly. “It’s a great opportunity for our apprentices to see this kind of build up close, because it’s the future.”

Forward planning

Due to City Building’s unique relationship with both GCC and WHG, it means that they can forward plan like no other company. 

“We’ve got a 30-year business plan in place,” explains Gavin, “which means we are able to take on 60 apprentices a year, across a range of trades. Currently, we take 10 in the painting and decorating sector and we always aim to take on a diverse mix of people – women, disabled people and people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. 

“There’s one woman here who started as an apprentice electrician at 16. She was the first female apprentice City Building employed. She’s 50 now and still loves working here. Women make up 10 per cent of the apprentice workforce now. 

“We also try to take on people who are leaving the care system and team up with Glasgow City Council’s Health and Social Care Partnership to identify future apprentices from that area.”

The recruitment technique seems to be working. With a 95-98 per cent completion rate among apprentices, Gavin explains that they try to manage the young people’s expectations of what the job will deliver. 

“We don’t ask for formal qualifications,” he says. “We do give everyone literacy and numeracy tests though, and there’s a practical test to see whether they can follow simple instructions. But it’s not about how good or bad people are – it’s about their potential.”

City Building gets 400 applications every year for the 60 places available. 

Gavin is keen for me to meet some students and the lecturers, so we make our way to the painting and decorating department. 


Graham Chatham, Senior Lecturer, is waiting with two of his team, Rhonda Logan and Stewart Campbell. Two fourth-year students are here too – Arshdeep Singh (23) and Candice Ronald (19). Candice proudly tells me she was the youngest employee when she started her apprenticeship at 16.

While talking to the lecturers, it’s a familiar story. All of them started as apprentices at City Building and, after a spell on the tools along with some further studying, they’re back to pass on their knowledge of the trade to a new generation of painters and decorators. 

“We’ve got a great bunch of young people here,” says Graham. “Last year was tough as we had very few practical classes due to Covid-19.”

Gavin chips in: “But we still managed to keep in touch with the students,” he says. “I mean, not everyone has access to a laptop or even Wi-Fi for online lessons, but almost all of the students have a smartphone or some kind of gaming device, like an Xbox or a PlayStation.”

“We were able to utilise digital platforms that we have never used before,” continues Graham. “We found that Discord and Cahoot can be used on Xboxes. They allow text messaging and video calls too, so it was easy to keep the communication channels open.

“Now we are back to practical classes, we like to go that wee bit further and show the students something that might not be part of the curriculum,” Graham reveals. “Spray plaster, for example, is not something that is normally taught as part of the course, but it is becoming very popular, especially in new builds, so it’s better that the students find out about it sooner rather than later.

Different strokes

“Signwriting is another skill that is enjoying a comeback right now, so we invited a young Glaswegian signwriter called Ciaran Glöbel, and he showed the students how his love of typography and eye for detail has made him one of the hottest signwriters around.”

I ask Arshdeep why he chose painting and decorating as a career. “I love the creative side of it all,” he says. “I’d been in retail jobs after I left school, but then I tried an ‘introduction to construction’ course at City of Glasgow College, and I really loved the painting side of it. I applied to City Building in 2018 and was accepted.

“I love entering competitions too,” he goes on. “Being under pressure and doing the best you can do.”

One of the company’s former apprentices, Lisa Murphy, won the Skillbuild competition in 2018 and she has become a bit of a legend, going on to win numerous other coveted awards.

“We’ve had women applying to be apprentices,” Graham tells me, “and when we ask them why, they say ‘we want to be like Lisa Murphy’.

“Competitions can have that effect,” Graham continues, as we move through to the ‘spray room’, where some other students are practising their skills for the next Skillbuild competition. 

“This is where the students can really get creative,” explains Graham. As I look around, the apprentices are cutting film masks, drawing cartoon characters and painting letters on their wallboards. 

“As long as the wallboards have examples of all the specialist techniques, it’s up to the students how they display them,” Graham tells me. “They are required to do wood graining, marbling, signwriting and gilding, among other things – they can look amazing when they’re finished.” 

I point to the feathers, and ask what they are for. Graham is keen to show me. “This is a goose feather taken from the left wing,” he says. “They’re not easy to come by. We use them to create the veins in marble.” 

By this time, he has commandeered a student’s wallboard and has scrunched up a piece of newspaper to dab it all over a cream painted circle. 

“The ink from the newspaper transfers to the paint and gives it a slight texture,” he says. “This gives us a good base to draw on the veins.”

Slowly, he starts to drag the tip of the feather across the surface, and gradually, a marbled appearance begins to reveal itself. 

“The columns up the stairs at the City Chambers are all painted to look like marble,” he laughs. “It’s only the ones on the ground floor that are real, but you can tell the difference if you know what you’re looking for.

“We might never use this technique in the work we do at City Building, but it’s all part of the apprenticeship. But I always say to the students, ‘we are training you to be a company owner’ – even though many of them will stay here as employees, some might branch out on their own. So they need to be prepared for whatever is thrown at them,” he smiles.

Candice chips in at this point. “It’s great because Graham sets us hypothetical projects where we have to price up a job or calculate the quantity of paint needed for a project. Then he rolls a dice, and the number rolled determines what happens next. You might not be able to get the full order, or your van breaks down – just like real life. It’s great for making you solve problems – it sets you up for the future.”   

Photograph shows Graham Chatham from City Building.