Reviving ambition and giving youth their chance

News editor

Engineering companies can play an important role in reviving communities which have suffered from the ravages of recession by offering opportunities to school leavers, while also developing and tapping into important pools of talent.

It can’t be easy breaking difficult news to a child and, looking back, my father must’ve had his reasons for saying what he did, when he did it.

The occasion was bath time and father saw this as the perfect opportunity to announce that the centre of my universe – my older brother – was leaving home.

He was going, my father said, to move to London to do something called an apprenticeship.

Seeing that my childish mind was struggling with both concepts he clarified the latter by describing an apprenticeship as ‘like getting paid to go to school.’

Good for him, I thought. School is dreadful but getting paid to attend must soften the blow, even if you’re doing so in a mysterious corner of London called Cockfosters.

I was pleased for him to have taken a route into one of two of our small town’s main employers, namely an electricity utility. The other, a factory, was somewhere my friends and I were sure we’d end up once schooling was over.

There was little reason to doubt our confidence, given that its founder had established premises in the town in 1778 and it grew (in its various incarnations) to produce everything from traction engines, agricultural machinery, guns for the navy and corrugated cardboard box making machines.

Then, in 1980, the factory closed. The town had experienced cyclical periods of boom and bust before but this time no buyer was found for the ailing company.

My brother was progressing well with his apprenticeship and the electricity utility he worked for continued to employ talented youngsters. Our town – in fact the entire county – received some even better news when the then Energy Secretary approved the build of a second electricity utility in the area.

The bad news was that it would be at least two years — from leaving school to taking up employment — before many of my peers would get the chance to reap the benefits provided by opportunities at the new site.

They did, at least, have hope in the decade that saw around two million manufacturing jobs wiped from the economy.

Move forward nearly 30 years and the outlook is entirely different.

As we all know, manufacturing did not disappear entirely and the sector is undergoing something of a renaissance, with the government continuing to make positive noises about its place in rebuilding the economy (whether the government is doing enough to help the sector is a different subject entirely).

In fact, manufacturing productivity has risen 40 per cent in a decade, contributing a third of the country’s total productivity growth. In the same timeframe the share of manufacturing employees in high-skilled employment increased from 30 per cent to 35 per cent despite companies finding it harder to fill skilled vacancies.

This theme was raised at this week’s EEF National Manufacturing Conference with two notable addresses aiming for the same outcome using different methods, namely to engage and stimulate young minds.

Finmeccanica’s Martin Flavell updated the audience on how the defence company has embedded itself in schools near to where it operates, providing everything from ‘Imagineering Clubs’ for primary school children to a national apprenticeship scheme rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. He stressed how the entry level apprentices go on to fill managerial roles, which brings me back to my brother who went from craft apprentice to management.

The values and aspirations of Finmeccanica and the electricity utility are rooted into people at a young age and they can rise far if they have the talent and inclination.

But what about the talent pool in areas where manufacturing had become a byword for failure and claiming state benefits had become the norm?

This, in part, was addressed by Dave Benstead, HR director of Diodes Zetex in Oldham, a town that rose to prominence during the industrial revolution on the back of its textile industry. 

For a number of years Benstead has been involved in bringing together people from managerial positions to share their knowledge and experience for the benefit of the local community.

This has taken the form of offering mentoring to providing work placements and one aim is to change the mindset of those who’ve become disaffected and don’t necessarily embody the work ethic required by employers.

Speaking at the event he said, ‘We are trying to signpost young people in Oldham and direct them, be it to an apprenticeship, part-time position or work placement.

‘I’ve seen children come out of schools — children for whom a lot of teachers and their families have given up on them — and they’ve gone into a work placement…and they love it. What’s more, the employers think they’re doing a good job.’

In short, Benstead and his colleagues are bringing hope to a ‘lost generation’.

‘I don’t care if they take their skills elsewhere,’ he said ‘but they should have the opportunity to prove their worth.’

My brother seized his opportunity when it came along and never looked back. Similarly, many of my old school friends took their opportunities when the new electricity utility was being built and they too now ply their various skilled trades around the country and indeed the world.

The loss of our factory, however, proved a bitter pill to swallow for the inhabitants of my town and all that remains of it is a museum that proudly displays what the workers of the town were capable of producing.

In its heyday, the factory’s owners didn’t need to embed themselves in local schools to attract new talent. But times have changed and companies like Finmeccanica should be applauded for their proactive approach to acquiring and retaining talent.

Young people want to take their opportunities. Just ask GE Aviation which offers 25 apprenticeship places a year and receives over 900 applications to fill them. Sometimes, however, they need to be made aware of them in the first place.