Horses for courses…

Stuart Nathan explores the common ground between BAE Systems’ Sigma Programme, designed to train its future leaders, and Warwick Manufacturing’s part-time courses for working engineers.

Bringing the best out of people is a trainer’s stock in trade. But different situations require different techniques, and what’s good for one person is unlikely to be the best idea for another. For BAE Systems, finding and training the creme de la creme is a difficult but worthwhile task — and it takes the resources of the whole organisation.

The Sigma Programme, aimed at training BAE’s elite, began eight years ago and has so far numbered 34 people among its members. ‘The real objective was for the organisation to develop its future leadership capability,’ said resources and development manager Jenny Cridland. ‘The idea was to develop people that weren’t going to be on a fairly normal development curve, but those who were going to be exceptional; to have a talent that was almost precocious. People who could be running the organisation in the future.’

The programme is neither age limited nor specifically a graduate recruitment scheme, but is generally aimed at people at an early stage in their careers. Minimum entry requirement is a first degree in an engineering discipline at upper second class level; many recruits also have a postgraduate qualification.

Some are recruited from within BAE’s ranks, others from a scheme where the company sponsors students at the Royal Academy of Engineering. But whatever the source, competition for the four places awarded each year is fierce. ‘In order to generate one successful recruit, we have to have at least 50 candidates,’ said Cridland. ‘And in terms of applications, we probably get about a thousand.’

The aim of Sigma is to provide its members with a range of different experience throughout the company. This is achieved via a combination of placements on different projects and mentoring, where each student is guided through their development by a string of supervisors at successively higher levels; managing director and board-level mentors are not uncommon.

Because the scheme is so small, the training is extremely targeted and tailored to the individual students, with the placements arranged by an Engineering Sigma Steering Group made up of the engineering directors from each of BAE’s sectors. ‘The students attend steering group meetings, and have to give a short presentation about themselves, what they’ve done so far, and what their career aspirations are,’ explained Cridland. ‘They get feedback, advice and guidance on what’s available, and that helps to guide their next placement.’

Placements last from six to 18 months, and become more specialised as the student progresses through the five-year scheme. According to recent Sigma graduate Mark Salathiel, the system has the effect of an extremely varied, but vastly accelerated, career progression.

‘The idea is that you do the first couple of years taking many different engineering roles — what they call depth roles — and then three years in breadth roles, to give you more experience across the different engineering domains,’ he said. ‘So you have the engineering background, and the breadth of experience as well. It’s amazing how much you can take across from one domain to another.’

All of the placements are real jobs with real objectives, which are used as development goalposts by the trainees. ‘They have clear-cut performance directives, so they have to deliver real feedback into the organisation right from the beginning,’ said Cridland.

The targets are those which any project would face, such as hitting a customer deadline or meeting a budget. ‘These are real jobs and activities that need to be done, but they’re supported,’ explained Cridland. ‘They’re the sort of thing that somebody with that level of talent and that sort of expertise, but with the right infrastructure around them, ought to be able to deliver — but they are stretching and challenging.’

An early placement might be within the engineering director’s office, to give the trainees experience of the range of activities within the organisation. Salathiel explained that from there it’s a case of looking for relevant placements.

Prior to joining BAE, Salathiel was sponsored by satellite maker Astrium, and had already tasted working in the aerospace sector. he also decided that he wanted his career to be a mixture of project manager and engineer.

‘I wanted to work on defence projects, because they seemed to be the most interesting to me, but I didn’t have a specific project or sector in mind,’ he said. ‘So I did some time with submarines, working on both the infrastructure and nuclear sides.

‘Next, I worked on guided missiles, and then in a shipyard on the repair and maintenance side, followed by experience on naval guidance radars.’ At 28, Salathiel is now in his first job since graduating from the scheme — managing a project to develop a new motorised howitzer gun, with a multi-million pound budget and a team of 34. ‘That sort of level, at that sort of age, is very good going for this organisation,’ said Cridland.

In a business environment where outsourcing is the norm, and companies concentrate on core businesses, it might seem odd that so much time and expertise is concentrated on such a small nucleus of people. But Cridland stresses that for BAE, Sigma has become a vital part of the company’s infrastructure. ‘While the normal assets associated with an organisation are clearly essential, it’s the intangibles which actually make a difference if you want to perform exceptionally,’ she said. ‘Training is about delivering the skills, expertise, knowledge and experience to the individuals that make up the company’s future.’

The cost, in terms of resources and the time of the mentors throughout the BAE hierarchy is considerable and difficult to quantify, but as Cridland maintains: ‘There’s a relationship between cost and value, and do I think it’s good value? Yes, I do.’

For Salathiel, the cost factor is a major component of the scheme, but for a different reason. ‘The placements are all funded by the company centre, so the projects don’t actually have to pay you; you’re a free resource to them,’ he explained. ‘To get that sort of experience outside BAE wouldn’t be possible, because you would have to apply for all the individual jobs.’

But schemes like Sigma are the exception. The Warwick Manufacturing Group, like many training specialists, focuses on skills training for working engineers, which presents a series of very different challenges. Started in 1985, WMG’s courses cover a range of subjects, from technology in its various forms, to management, finance and marketing as they are applied to engineering and technology businesses. Courses are designed by industrial partners including Rolls-Royce, Airbus and BAE Systems.

‘We run full-time courses at MSc level and part-time courses, and most people in permanent employment are on part-time courses,’ explained WMG chief executive Mark Pickering. ‘The design concept is targeted at technology, engineering and manufacturing companies, and we run two types: multi-company, which are open, public courses, and bespoke, which tend to be single company — although very occasionally we have two firms collaborating.’

However, despite their obvious differences, WMG’s courses have an important feature in common with the Sigma scheme: they use the breadth of the engineering sector to produce a cross-fertilisation of skills among people from related and very different sectors. WMG courses are taken by a mixture of full-time lecturers, all with experience of working in industry, and industrial tutors brought in from participating companies.

‘For more mature people working in technology businesses, you have to think about training in the way they like to be addressed. When the tutors are fielding questions from a 42-year-old who’s been with Rolls-Royce for 20 years, they have to know it’s an ex-factory manager or an experienced industrialist who’s answering their questions. But part of the benefit is in the discussions with people from other industries and sectors.’

This is also valid for sharing skills from people in different operations within a single company. ‘With those who have a particular metier, such as manufacturing engineers, you’ll often find that people come on a course to brush up their skills in that area,’ said Pickering.

‘But these courses will also have modules on things like strategic marketing or finance. This provides the opportunity to understand at a more in-depth level how a business needs to hang together for success — sometimes, to optimise the business you need to work at the interfaces between departments.’

Another common factor shared by both Sigma and the WMG schemes is the insistence on real-world targets for their courses. ‘These courses aren’t examined, precisely,’ said Pickering. ‘At the end of each one-week project, students are given a post-module assignment which is designed to embed the learning and give them a chance to try out what they’ve learned within the environment of their own company; in fact, this project can, and often is, agreed before the course starts.

Once they’ve finished that assignment, they write a report, and we assess that. You can immediately see whether it’s had an effect.’