Open your doors to find workers with the best fit

Barney Cox
Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Aberystwyth’s location on the west Wales coast just beneath the Snowdonia National Park is a pretty remote spot, which can make finding staff with the right skill set a challenge.

With that in mind Cambrian Printers decided to take a leftfield approach to its recent round of recruitment. It opted for an open day for prospective apprentices to identify a pool of local talent that was a good fit with the company’s ethos and who would prove to be great assets to the business.

The challenge

“Because of the location of Cambrian it’s harder to get staff with experience,” says group operations director Karl Gater. “While it’s less of a challenge for the most senior roles, potential operators and skilled trades are not so likely to want to move.”

Another factor was the desire to bring fresh perspectives and ideas into the business. 

“We wanted to build our own team and to bring in new blood.”

With that in mind Gater and the other directors decided it would be good to find locals with the right aptitude and attitude and to train them to fit the firm’s needs rather than trying to find someone with all the right skills ready to go. 

They were keen to nurture local talent and, as one of the larger employers in the area, felt they should be giving opportunities to the local community. 

It was a challenge than runs both ways: while the firm was struggling to find people to join the business there were also a lot of locals with the right skills and attitude who were unaware of Cambrian, had no idea about the printing industry and therefore wouldn’t necessarily see the firm as offering the right opportunities either.

Cambrian, and parent group Pensord, are no strangers to taking on apprentices, but this time around given the challenges for both the company and potential recruits it decided to take a different approach. Conventionally, as with any role, when there was an apprenticeship it would be for a particular position and the firm would follow the approach of advertising the vacancy and selecting from the responses by CV and then interview. 

“When you look at a CV in black and white it can be very easy and very swift to sort through what you think you are looking for,” he says. 

The problem is that a good CV may favour people who are good at writing CVs and not necessarily those that are best suited to the job in hand. He highlights the same issue with the interview process: “An interview can be very sterile and people can be on edge, just like some people are when they take exams.” Again, not necessarily a good test for identifying someone’s real aptitudes and abilities beyond being able to present a good front face to face.

The method

Having recognised the challenges the company and potential recruits encountered with the traditional recruitment process Gater and managing director Darren Coxon discussed their options and came up with the idea of running an evaluation day to identify potential apprentices. Once they had come up with that idea they researched the methods available and worked with a training company the firm had used before to define the criteria for evaluation and the structure for the day. 

“We based the criteria on what we need in the business. Fit is a big thing for us; someone might be brilliant but if they don’t fit then it’s not going to work. We also considered their contribution, confidence, ideas, initiative and whether they were team players or individuals.” 

He described the criteria chosen as “nothing clever or unique” just what they wanted in the business. 

A date for the evaluation day was set for 20 September 2018 and it was advertised on a generic jobs website. 

In total, the advert attracted 22 applicants, all of whom were invited to attend the open house. During the day they were split into smaller groups and shown around the business, and then participated in a number of group exercises. 

Over the course of the day the potential recruits were hosted and observed by a four-strong team comprising Coxon and Gater and finance director Kirsty Jenkins and account manager Amy James, who was chosen to provide input from one of the younger members of the current team 

“This was a great way of finding out more about the true nature of someone,” Gater explains.

Each of the four evaluators independently wrote up assessments of the participants using a standard set of criteria. They then met up to review the results and decide who to invite back for an interview. Once a shortlist had been drawn up the interviews were carried out over the following couple of weeks and the chosen recruits started in November.

“We decided on the approach of assessing independently as we thought it was important to get different view points and to make sure we weren’t too blinkered and were coming at it from different perspectives within the business.

“The people we decided to take on we all agreed on, although we had reached the decisions independently. We also all agreed on where within the business they would each be best suited.”

The event also enabled the attendees to consider if print and Cambrian were the right fit for them too.

“It wasn’t just for us to say we want you,” he says. “It was also a chance for them to see whether or not they wanted to work for us.”

Although not everyone who attended the day was invited back for an interview, everyone was offered feedback on their performance in the exercise, if they wanted it. There were some attendees of the main session on the 20th who chose not to return to the company. 

Gater says that it was clear that of the 22 applicants there were some who were applying just for the sake of applying but that wasn’t the case for most. He says: “The clear feedback we got was that people want a career rather than a job, but the opportunity to do so is rare. Especially within the local area the opportunities just aren’t out there. It was also refreshing to see how many people out there really want to work.”

The financial cost was significant, but for Gater not really the point. He accepts that four members of the management team each taking a day out for the evaluation day and the further time to complete their write ups, to come together again to discuss those and then to interview the shortlisted people is “in terms of pounds, shillings and pence expensive”. 

However, the team felt that it was important to personally spend the time to show that they are human beings and that the way they conduct the business is on a personal level and they are always approachable. 

It was also important that the recruits would go the distance and become long-term members of the Cambrian team.

“Long gone are the days when companies would take on lots of apprentices only to let them go at the end of two years, and personally I think that’s good. It isn’t right for a firm to take on too many people and let some go after two years. It is far better to spend the time at the beginning to reap the rewards later.”

The result

Following the assessment day, the follow ups and the interviews four out of the 22 attendees started positions at the firm on 19 November, just under two months after the assessment day. Of those four three began apprenticeships, and one due to their circumstances, started in a part-time role in the business.

The three apprentices are: Rhys James, who is doing a warehousing apprenticeship while working in the warehousing and despatch area; Sophie Lewis, who doing a finishing apprenticeship while working in the bindery and Katarzyna Dec, who is doing a print administration apprenticeship while working in the office.

Margarita Barnes began a part-time role in the bindery following the apprenticeship evaluation day as she wanted to join, but her outside of work commitments didn’t allow her to focus all of her time on the apprenticeship scheme.

“We’ve also engaged with a couple of them in case another opportunity comes up,” Gater says.

Nearly six months in and all the recruits are well into their training and proving their worth.

“All are contributing, all are part of the team and all are delivering on the potential we saw,” he says. “It was absolutely the right decision.”

When it comes to recruiting for the next round of apprenticeships, Gater is confident the company will take the same approach, and may well adopt some aspects of the evaluation day when recruiting for other roles too. 


Cambrian Printers

Location Aberystwyth

Inspection host Group operations director Karl Gater

Size Staff: 60; turnover: £6m 

Established 1860, acquired by Pensord 2017

Products Books, booklets, brochures, journals, magazines and stationery along with fulfilment and mailing services 

Kit KBA Rapida 106 10-colour and Heidelberg XL 105 four-colour litho presses; HP Indigo 7800 digital press, folding, stitching, binding and mailing equipment

Inspection focus Attracting fresh talent to the industry


Assess where there are skills and experience gaps in your business with consideration not just to immediate needs but where issues may arise in the next few years

Consider the type of attributes you want from prospective staff and how they will fit with your workplace culture, thinking beyond the narrow confines of a particular job specification when designing activities and assessments

Devise clear assessment criteria and get individuals from different parts of the business to carry out the assessments to ensure a fair and balanced view

Don’t underestimate the untapped potential available within your local community and be prepared to take on people with the right attributes who can be trained to gain the needed skills

Remember it is a two-way process, some applicants you see potential in may not see the same in your business or sector

Be prepared to be flexible, if an apprenticeship route isn’t right but an applicant is still appealing, discuss other options that might work better for both sides


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