Amid the gathering economic gloom at the end of last year, one announcement stood out. Toyota’s decision to scale back production at its plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire was in tune with the grim climate but the car giant stressed that its employees would be not be idle. Instead of their normal jobs, they would be training.
Toyota claimed that training its people when times are bad will leave them better prepared for when things improve. If nothing else, the announcement kept the issue of skills development on the agenda at a point when it could have easily disappeared.
The value of training and skills development is arguably greater for companies and their employees in tough economic times than when business is booming.
For companies, difficult trading conditions mean it is more important to stand out from the crowd when competing for contracts that are thinner on the ground. An employee base that is demonstrably highly skilled is one way of achieving this.
For employees, training often holds the key to a more secure future. Companies are likely to shed their highest skilled staff with great reluctance, knowing that once they are gone they are far more difficult to replace than their low-skilled counterparts.
The value staff place on training is often underestimated by their employers. A survey by the Learning and Skills Council — carried out as the impact of the recession was becoming clear — discovered a huge appetite for skills development. More than half of respondents said they viewed training as a key factor in improving their job security and 77 per cent said they would investigate ways of boosting their skills base.
In the fast-changing engineering and technology arena the need for continuous skills improvement is greater than in most other sectors.
That training can come from a wide range of sources, including a seemingly endless array of government-backed organisations. Major business development and support groups such as Pera offer a broad range of training covering many aspects of the technology and innovation process.
Specialist organisations in distinct areas of engineering or technology often provide training among their other services.
In the field of materials technology, for example, bodies such as Namtec and TWI run training programmes closely aligned to the sector’s needs.
In the case of government-backed training the key access points for companies are Business Link and Train to Gain. The latter is the focus for a £350m funding package aimed at SMEs announced by the government last year.
Ministers claimed accessing this provision had been made easier through the relaxation of some of the regulations that previously governed the Train to Gain scheme.
The various UK regional development agencies also play a significant part in setting the skills agenda for their local areas and can be a useful source of information for businesses.
There is, however one — or in many cases, more than one — potential source of training and skills development provision for most companies that may be overlooked.
That is the local university which, alongside its most obvious role of looking after thousands of undergraduates, may also provide training and professional development services to businesses.
Over the last few years universities have emerged as a major provider of training and skills development for businesses.
They are desperate to remove any lingering ideas of them as ‘ivory towers’ remote from commercial reality and are promoting themselves as a key local resource for businesses.
Universities UK, the national body for the academic sector, said it would do more to encourage links between companies and local academics.
Newcastle University’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences provides a good example of the type of training activity under way around the UK. It runs a broad range of training programmes for those in full-time employment, from one to five days.
The university developed its programmes with equipment manufacturer Leica Geosystems, which gives the academic staff regular updates on technical innovations in the sector to ensure they are keeping the training material as relevant as possible.
A major resource for employers looking for business-focused training from universities is The Training Gateway, a website funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England but covering universities across the UK. The site claims to offer access to more than 100,000 courses, including training in engineering, technology, design and construction.
A number of initiatives are under way to help gear university courses more closely to the needs of industrial partners and to give companies better access to training and skills development from academic partners.
At national level, the EPSRC has launched a £250m initiative to create training centres designed to meet the UK’s priority needs in engineering, technology and science.
The aim of the Industrial Doctorate Centre (IDC) scheme is to create 44 training centres that will generate more than 2000 PhD students. Priority areas singled out by the EPSRC include environmental technologies, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and high-tech crime prevention.
The UK water sector is one of those covered by the IDC scheme. The water industry is facing a shortfall of skilled engineers and technologists unless action is taken, and the creation of the IDC aims to address this.
The Skills, Technology, Research and Management Centre (STREAM) will be co-ordinated by Cranfield University and run in collaboration with the universities of Sheffield, Newcastle, Exeter and Imperial College, London.
STREAM will focus, among other things, on chemical-free water treatment, developing techniques for more energy-efficient water provision and reducing floods.
Prof Simon Parsons of Cranfield University, the IDC’s director, said the five universities taking part would work closely with the industry to deliver the skilled people the sector needs.
For example, students will spend 75 per cent of their time working with a relevant industrial partner such as a utility or equipment manufacturer.
‘It’s important that post-graduate training provision in this important area is invigorated with new educational techniques and delivery methods,’ said Parsons.
STREAM has already attracted support funding for studentships from 11 water utilities, including Yorkshire, Anglian, Northumbrian Thames and Severn Trent.
One of the most notable regional initiatives to emerge from efforts to get universities and business more closely aligned is the Index Innovation Voucher Scheme, pioneered in the West Midlands and now attracting the attention of government at national level.
Index offers SME companies vouchers worth £3,000 to buy tailored support from any of the region’s 13 universities.
While general training is not eligible for purchase using the vouchers, specific training in innovation management is one of the areas covered by the scheme.
Skills development can pay dividends even in tough times, with universities an often overlooked resource