meet the team: Steve graham

DMR assessor Steve Graham talks to us about NVQ assessment, the Great Storm of 1987, Freddie Mercury and Pope John Paul II

Our last Meet the Team blog post with Jody Seal (our employer engagement officer) was back in April and we decided it was time to shine the spotlight on another member of staff. This time it’s NVQ assessor Steve Graham’s turn. We pulled him aside for a quick chat about his job but the conversation lurched off more than once in unanticipated directions.

DMR: Hi Steve, thanks for joining us. Can you start by telling us how long you’ve worked for DMR Training, and what it is you do?

STEVE: I started at DMR in 2015 and I’m an NVQ assessor and Senior IQA.

DMR: What’s an IQA exactly?

STEVE: It stands for Internal Quality Assurance. The IQAs job is to check NVQ portfolios are completed to the required standard before claiming the achievement certificate with the awarding body like City & Guilds.

NVQ assessor Steve Graham posing with the Ladbrokes FA Cup

Steve posing with the FA Cup

DMR: Before you became an NVQ assessor and IQA, you worked as a painter and decorator, didn’t you?

STEVE: Yes, that’s right. Although my first job, when I was 18, was in a factory making frames for three-piece suites. I remember being on about £80 a week which felt like a small fortune at that age. It probably was a small fortune in 1977.

DMR: How did you become a painter and decorator?

STEVE: I’d been decorating for friends and family in my spare time, and it was something I enjoyed. I managed to get on a Painting and Decorating apprenticeship with Bolton College. After completing the apprenticeship, I moved into a team role with a refurbishment company. The job involved more than decorating; I also had to do plumbing, plastering, roofing, joinery and other bits and pieces.

DMR: Right, so that’s how you became the all-round DIY maestro that we know today? How is the DIY going by the way? [Steve often regales colleagues in the office with updates on home improvement projects he’s working on).

STEVE: It’s not! I haven’t got the time at the moment.

NVQ Assessor Steve Graham doing a DIY project

DIY Maestro: Steve playing air guitar while taking up a floorboard.

DMR: That’s not like you. So, what happened next in your career?

STEVE: Eventually I moved to a painting firm that specialised in high end work. This would have been in the mid-1980s. I remember one job particularly well. It was down in London and we stayed in digs. One morning we woke up to total devastation – trees were uprooted, cables were lying across the road and roofs were missing tiles. We couldn’t even get to work, and had to turn back.

That was the Great Storm of 1987. And we had slept right through it!

DMR: How did you manage to sleep through a Great Storm?

STEVE: Let’s just say we’d had a few beers the night before.

Anyway, I then moved into a role at Manchester Science Park supervising contractors, and I gained more experience in other trades while building partition walls and fitting out laboratories.

DMR: Sleep through any storms in that job?

STEVE: No, but someone once dropped an industrial shredder on my foot and broke it [his foot, not the industrial shredder].

DMR: You weren’t wearing the correct PPE? Tut tut.

STEVE: Yes I was! The damage was done above the steel toe cap line. I’ve worked with some clumsy people in my time. In the late 1970s we had a workmate who we nicknamed Frank Spencer. He kept knocking paint over and falling off ladders. He was just a walking disaster. I remember on one occasion when he was tasked with fitting a new light strip. He neglected to turn the power off first and he was blown across the room!

But years later, around the time my foot was broken by the shredder, I was at a point in my career where my knee was swelling up and I’d developed arthritis. I decided it was time to move off the tools.

NVQ assessor Steve Graham in novelty Christmas jumper

Steve wearing full PPE

DMR: And that’s when you became an NVQ assessor?

STEVE: Yes. I first started as an assessor with Skills Solutions (now the Growth Company) in Manchester in 2006. I’ve being doing it for 15 years now.

DMR: Part of the job as an assessor involves visiting candidates in their workplace to carry out an onsite observation. What does this involve?

STEVE: I’ll arrive onsite, sign in, sometimes go through an induction, and introduce myself to the site manager, and explain why I’m there. NVQ assessment is all about gathering work-based evidence. So I’ll take the candidate outside the front of the site and making a short video where he introduces himself, states why he is there, and discusses the health and safety aspects of the job. We’ll then go to the property or plot that he is working on, and I’ll ask him to talk me through the job – what are you doing and why are you doing it?

I’ll get extra evidence by taking photos and videos of the candidate while he works, and I’ll also carry out an observation where I literally stand and watch the candidate working. I’m looking for evidence that he is doing the work to the required standard, in the required timeframe.

NQV assessor Steve Graham presenting an NVQ certificate to a construction worker

Steve presenting an NVQ achievement certificate to one of his learners

DMR: Another part of an NVQ is the job knowledge which comes in the form of a question pack. We often see candidates getting overwhelmed and frustrated due to the wording of the questions (disclaimer: DMR has no input with the writing of the job knowledge questions). How do you deal with this?

STEVE: I always want to speak to them face-to-face.

The scenario plays out like this often: The candidate will see the question pack and panic, and sometimes won’t even answer his phone when I call. The questions are written in an intimidating, academic way, and it puts people off. At least, until I have the chance to go through it with them face-to-face.

DMR: Why does a face-to-face meeting improve things?

STEVE: If I can arrange to have a face-to-face meeting, it’s much easier to explain how to interpret the questions. All candidates have the knowledge to answer these questions. It’s just a matter of helping them to interpret them. It’s much easier to do that in person. And it’s much easier to win someone back after they’ve abandoned the NVQ due to feeling disheartened by the questions.

DMR: How do you support learners with learning difficulties such as dyslexia?

STEVE: I saw a lad recently who wasn’t very academic and had very little confidence in himself. Getting through the NVQ took a lot longer than usual but we had plenty of face-to-face meetings and one-to-one sessions so I could give him extra support.

A lot of construction workers leave school at 16 with no qualifications: I’m one of them myself. It’s not that we’re thick; we’re just uneducated. I’ve had candidates come to me and say “I can’t do this, I’m thick” and I’ve said, “if you were thick, you wouldn’t have been doing this job for 20 years!”

I try to treat everyone as an individual according to their needs and the level of support they require. Some haven’t picked up a pen since they left school, but they still achieve their NVQ because they have the skill and experience in the job. That’s what an NVQ is about – skill and experience. It’s not about being academic or educated to a high level.

DMR: What about your colleague who you nicknamed Frank Spencer? Could you have supported him throughout an NVQ?

STEVE: Oh, he was actually a very clever and intelligent bloke. He was just painfully clumsy.

Steve Graham (NVQ assessor and Lead IQA) at a DMR Christmas team meeting

Steve eyeing up another beer at the 2017 DMR Christmas team meeting

DMR: Tell us what you enjoy most about working as an assessor?

STEVE: I still get to go on site and have some banter with the lads. But I don’t have to do it in the middle of winter when it’s minus 50 degrees!

DMR: Er, when has it ever been minus 50 degrees in the UK?!

STEVE: I was exaggerating. But I remember a job in the late ‘80s when it was minus 11. The paint was freezing on the ceiling!

DMR: Flipping heck – sounds like something out of that film, The Day After Tomorrow. Have you seen it?


DMR: Fair enough. Moving on…As with Jody [our Employer Engagement Officer] companies and NVQ candidates speak very highly of you. We get some excellent feedback. Are you simply an all-round helpful guy, or did you find the secret to the art of making customers happy?

STEVE: Patience is key. Understanding that all people are different and adapting when necessary. Sometimes you need to go that extra mile and pick up your phone at 8pm. And you need to be aware that some people are slower than others.

DMR: That’s enough about NVQ assessment. Tell us about Steve Graham, the man.

STEVE: I live in Middleton with my wife, Trish. I’ve just turned 60. I’ve got two sons – one of whom recently had a child of his own with his partner.

DMR: Congratulations, Grandad Steve!

STEVE: Thank you. What else…now I’m in my latter years, I enjoy walking and hiking. I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t make it up a mountain this year.

DMR: It’s only August – you’ve still got time.

STEVE: It’s nearly Autumn, and Autumn’s a bit too grim for fell walking.

But generally, I’m enjoying life to the full now I’ve reached 60. I appreciate things much more.

DMR: Tell us about the time you saw Queen perform at Heaton Park.

STEVE: No, I saw Queen at Elland Road. Afterwards the coach left without us. We had to get a mate’s dad to chauffeur us back to Manchester – there were about eight of us all crammed in the car. We got back about 7am, cracked open the beers, and later that day we went to a second gig.

DMR: Who did you see at the second gig?

STEVE: Pope John Paul II at Heaton Park! We had our beers confiscated at the entrance, just like we had at Elland Road.

Photo of NVQ assessor Steve Graham in his younger years alongside memorabilia of Queen and The Pope from 1982

A young Steve in 1982 alongside memorabilia from the ‘two gigs’.

DMR: Who did you enjoy more: Freddie or the Pope?

STEVE: Close one – but I have to say Freddie. Are we almost done?

DMR: Yes, let’s wrap it up with the Queen and Pope anecdote. That’s a solid way to end. Thanks for chatting with us, Steve.

STEVE: No problem.

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