ZF Lemforder UK, part of the German automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen, is a growing engineering company in the West Midlands. Around three hundred people at the Darlaston site produce automotive chassis components, for use in the UK and abroad. While the business did reduce its headcount in 2008 through the tough economic conditions, it has recently won new business which will realise significant growth.
ZF has supported the Black Country UTC through its establishment and opening in September 2011. This has been driven by a number of factors.
The average age of the workforce at Darlaston is 45 and there are a number of areas where up-skilling and re-skilling will be necessary to support growth. In addition, the company has been struggling to recruit skilled engineers locally and with significant growth plans in the future, this problem becomes more acute.
Along with these pressures, the local area is experiencing a renaissance in engineering activity, particularly in aerospace and automotive. The opening of the new JLR engine plant, plans for which were recently announced, will reaffirm this and will mean more organisations are fighting for a diminishing engineering resource pool.
To try and combat this ZF have been investing in recruitment campaigns and apprenticeships. But surprisingly we have experienced little interest from young people in relation to either of these opportunities to join the company.
Some employer’s would say this is as a result of poor teaching and careers information about engineering in secondary schools and a comment made by one secondary school head teacher during a visit to the Black Country UTC proved that this is sadly so – at least in some cases. “Why do we need UTC’s,” said the head teacher. “We don’t have any engineering left in this country, do we?” This is why the UTC concept is so important.
The relationship between ZF and the UTC came through some determined work by Gordon Mills, UTC director of business engagement, early in 2011. He initially contacted us and sold the concept as a solution to some of our above issues.
Soon afterwards, ZF got involved in the design of the manufacturing CNC module now being taught at the college. We tried to make the study as relevant as possible, with modern CNC manufacturing methods and techniques. Getting involved in the design of this module early on meant that our HR manager was even able to be part of the interview panel which selected specialist teachers.
Moving into the summer of 2011, we were able to support the machine specification process for the module. When the equipment arrived, our engineering team and Kennametal (one of our suppliers) supported machine set up alongside college staff. Kennametal supplied the tooling free along with the time of their engineer. In addition, ZF have been able to provide additional tooling and raw materials in readiness for the students to produce their first parts.
Another project we have helped with is the Greenpower competition in which the school is participating. ZF has sponsored one of the electric racing cars competing for the college in this nationwide contest. The car recently raced at Silverstone and we were able to offer work experience placements to students in the run up, helping them to prepare.
Our support in both of the above areas has helped the college ensure that it is building relevant, factory-ready skills for students as well as helping in the continuous professional development of college staff through exposing them to modern tooling and techniques and real world commercial concerns.
This relationship with the UTC is still developing but is regarded by both parties as mutually beneficial. We are looking forward to taking three engineering apprentices from the college into ZF Lemforder UK this September and can be fully confident that they will be enthusiastic learners with a strong manufacturing and engineering skills base already in place.