Plant & Works Engineering

Industry’s generational challenge

Published:  04 July, 2007

With an expanding global economy and young people who are increasingly drawn to media-based industries, it is critical that industry looks to develop the next generation of engineers, if it is to maintain a strong manufacturing base in the UK.

The growing trend for pupils in the UK to shun subjects like maths and science shows clearly the scale of the task at hand.  This trend has repercussions across industry, with a reduced take up of engineering and science-based subjects at university leading to limited availability of skilled staff to manufacturers across the country.

So how does the UK manufacturer rise to the challenge of encouraging more young people and new talent into the world of industry? 

Today's future workforce has been brought up in a very different world to our parents, where technology, communication and travel have become the norm and the  'Job for Life" has all but disappeared.  The fast-paced, high-tech business world has a certain perceived glamour to a younger generation, which does not help to improve the status of manufacturing and engineering as exciting or interesting career options.

Malcom Blackwell, managing director of CompAir’s High Pressure Division told PWE:    "When I talk to school leavers, they find it difficult to comprehend what a career in industry might actually involve.  Looking closely, I believe that we can link this lack of understanding back to the demise of the apprenticeship schemes that were once prevalent throughout the UK. Apprentices were spokesmen for industry, telling their friends and pier groups all about their roles and the opportunities that existed for their future development.”

Similarly with the advent of the ‘commute to work’, industry has been able to recruit staff from a wider geographical area or in-turn, existing employees have been able to move and travel longer distances to work. Although this is positive in a lot of respects, the once strong connections industry had with its local communities has been threatened and in some cases, broken down altogether as fewer local people become involved in the business.

It is essential that we recognise the importance of a company’s bond with its local community and surrounding educational institutions, especially when businesses are located in more remote parts of the country.

At CompAir’s High Pressure Division in Ipswich, Blackwell says the company has learnt this lesson from first hand experience: “As a specialist manufacturer of compressed air and gas equipment, we rely heavily on the skills of our staff at all levels to design, manufacture and service products for a whole range of industries and applications, for customers around the world.

“In 2005 we had the opportunity to relocate our operations from an ageing site to a new facility, one that would allow the business to perform more efficiently and secure future growth. This gave us the option to move to other locations in the UK that offered incentives for new development, however a move away from our workforce would have had enormous repercussions for the business, so we remained in Ipswich.”

He explains that while this allowed the company to retain a high level of experience within the business, it still had the problem of attracting skilled labour to what is seen as a more remote part of the UK, despite being only an hour from London. Even though CompAir Reavell has benefited from a close relationship with the community after operating in Ipswich for more than 100 years, Blackwell highlights how the company saw the opportunity to promote the business locally, paying particular attention to schools, colleges and universities.

As a first step, he explains, we needed to stress the importance of our skills drive internally and appointed a dedicated team, operations director, Andrew Dawson-Goodey and HR manager, Julie Cann to create a comprehensive programme that empowered staff to invest their time in the future of the business. Dawson explains the positive impact that the scheme has had on existing staff and new recruits: “When we first started putting our ‘Investment in Skills for the Future’ programme together we realised that it was more than ten years since we had last taken on an apprentice or a graduate trainee.  We set about identifying our ‘internal champions’, the individuals that would be placed in charge of making the overall programme a success.  By giving our staff the relevant training required to help them pass on their knowledge, we gained an important commitment and positive response from the workforce in general.

“The next step was to attract interest at a young age, so we began working with local schools to develop a work experience programme that could really enthuse the individuals taking part.  Although our main skills shortage is in engineering, we recognised the need to be inclusive by enabling pupils to gain administration and finance knowledge too. Most importantly, we made sure that all pupils on the programme actually achieved something to be proud of and left with a sense of purpose and hopefully with an understanding of the opportunities to be found in manufacturing.”

Craig Tournay-Godfrey, head of vocational studies at St Albans Roman Catholic High School explained: “As a local employer, CompAir Reavell clearly recognises its responsibility to the community and makes a real effort to support the school and its students.  When our pupils return from their work experience they are full of enthusiasm and impressed by what the manufacturing world has to offer - several have even applied to work there when they finish their studies.”

HR Manager, Julie Cann explained how the scheme has progressed: “We then extended the scheme by resurrecting our apprenticeship programme which is intended to directly address the skills shortages in the business as well as extend our skill base. It’s been such a success that we plan to take on another two apprentices later this year, offering both mechanical engineering and electrical apprenticeships.

“From this solid foundation we then began to focus on attracting high-calibre school leavers and graduates from local schools and regional universities. By offering summer placements, backed by the potential for bursary support, we could offer funding to students who were serious about a career in engineering.  This in-turn led to the formation of our graduate training programme.

Cann explained the graduate scheme offers the potential to work both in Ipswich and in its companies abroad and has been extremely successful, attracting high-calibre students to the business, such as Matt Bellay. Having entered the company through the traditional graduate route, he is currently in the US for three months working with the company’s MAKO breathing air division on a new product launch; it’s a great opportunity for any young graduate.

Cann concludes: “We have also forged strong links with Bristol University, as a sponsor of their engineering society rugby team and have developed positive relationships with individuals and faculties alike.”

While CompAir’s main focus is getting young people excited about manufacturing, its search for new skills has been expanded to support the needs and development of its more experienced staff, offering flexible working hours and funding for NVQ training.  David Brooke is one of the company’s most recent beneficiaries, receiving support to achieve NVQ level II in Performing Engineering Operations at the age of 62, proving that skills can be developed at any stage in your career. The company hopes this progressive attitude will also be an incentive to draw people into the business at all levels.

Blackwell is convinced that by investing in the development of young people we can challenge the skills shortage, but only through the development of an inclusive programme, backed by existing staff, the local community, schools, colleges and universities, that allows everyone involved to have a sense of achievement and satisfaction: “Only then can we generate long term excitement about manufacturing and create a sustainable solution to the engineering skills shortage.”

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Charlotta’s Story

Charlotta Jonsson is CompAir Reavell’s first female engineering graduate. Originally from Sweden, where she graduated with a Masters’ degree in Mechanical Engineering, Charlotta moved to the UK, keen to gain overseas work experience with a global organisation that could offer her challenging and rewarding job prospects.

She sent her CV to the Engineering Employers’ Federation and was soon contacted by CompAir when a Design Engineer position became available.

Charlotta is now part of CompAir’s Base Design engineering team, a group that combines the fresh skills of people like Charlotta and Tom Chick, CompAir’s first graduate recruit, with the broad industry experience and in-depth knowledge of the more senior engineers.

Charlotta comments: “Engineering is a dynamic environment to work in, because you have to work closely with every department in the company to see a project through, from its conception to completion. I get a real sense of job satisfaction when I go down to the shopfloor and see a compressor that I’ve helped design ready to be delivered to a customer.”