Arrested development?

Mark Young explores recent developments in Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, Train to Gain and Apprenticeships – three of the most prominent schemes when it comes to industrial training – and attempts to unravel the spaghetti junction of skills agencies that provide the courses they offer

Perhaps you are a manufacturer with many of your workforce – and its accompanying skill base – approaching retirement age. Or maybe you’ve built up a talented team of people with the potential to set the industrial world alight but who lack the hard skills to put the next level of the production process into practice. Or maybe your organisation is just in need of some sharpening up.

What you want is specialist industrialist training. How are you going to obtain it? Do you take it upon yourself, passing your knowhow down through the ranks; do you employ consultants to do this for you; or do you send your staff to the local college?

Seeing the range of options
Manufacturers know what they want to get out of training schemes but they don’t know always what all the options are. In addition, the structure of skills and training agencies in the UK can seem exasperating.

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSSC) said in its recent report Reskilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies: “Taking the national, regional and sectoral complexities together it seems to us that much of this system is impenetrable to everyone apart from possibly a few civil servants and a handful of academics.” The National Audit Office even provided organisational charts to illustrate this point [see overleaf]. Indeed, the need for a simpler structure of government skills agencies has been advocated by the organisations themselves, as well as by Whitehall: “The principal barriers seemed to be gaining access to information about the programme,” the latter has said.

One redress to this problem which the Government has recently commissioned is talentplan.org.uk, a website allowing businesses to input the types of skills they are seeking, along with their industry and location, to retrieve recommendations for the agencies, organisations and programmes best suited to meet their needs.

The system begins with the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). This government funded body finances 25 departments which make up the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils (SSC), one of which is allocated to each industry sector. One of the two main SSCs to deal with manufacturing is Semta, which looks after aerospace, automotive, bioscience, electrical, electronics, maintenance, marine, mathematics, mechanical, metals and engineered metal products industries. The other is Cogent, serving the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, nuclear, oil and gas, petroleum and polymers industries.

Cogent represents 19,000 companies, between them employing close to one million people. The average gross value added to the UK economy for a UK worker is £31,000 but from an employee of a company under Cogent’s stewardship, it is £98,000. Overall, those firms have a combined annual turnover of £156bn. Semta’s coverage is 76,000 companies and closer to two million staff. These agencies act as a bridge to access government training schemes and the funding for them, and to create relationships between companies and academic institutions. They can set up Train to Gain (T2G) programmes and apprenticeships, and can also act as brokers by carrying out assessments of companies to evaluate their training needs and advise what skills services are on offer.

The National Skills Academy for Manufacturing is distinct from the SSCs, though it has many similar roles, reports to Semta and is also financed by the LSC. In addition, a new organisation called the National Apprenticeship Service begins in April which will govern all apprenticeships across all sectors.

Aside from the frustrations about a convoluted and inaccessible structure, the actual content of training schemes when they are finally located has often been found wanting. The IUSSC remarks in its Re-skilling report that it has received many criticisms of Train to Gain, and suggested that a “radical reform” of the scheme was now necessary – this coming just two years since it commenced.

What can be done to clarify the structure of training options?

Train to Gain Compact
Recognising the frailties of a training programme that regularly fails to equip its students with a deep enough understanding to enter a company and perform in a given role, SSCs have pushed for and succeeded in obtaining funding to implement a second phase, which will work in conjunction with the original T2G programmes.

Cogent has been awarded £50m for companies who want to take part in an extension programme, Train to Gain Compact (Compact). Cogent’s communications director Mervin Dadd asserts that the programme will be a success, since the organisation will now be held to account by its quantified results.

Compact is also offered by Semta, which has a budget of £65m at its disposal to support this. A three-year initiative, it seeks to extend the offerings of SSCs and includes more flexible and specific training options. Through Compact, companies can provide employees with additional Level Two and Three national vocational qualifications (NVQs) on top of the ones available through the original T2G, and the scheme will focus on bringing skills into line with European benchmarks.

“This is an agreement between us and the Learning and Skills Council,” says Dadd. “We get the extra money and we must provide 10,500 learners who achieve full Level Two qualifications, 5,215 learners achieving full Level Three qualifications and a further 6,000 apprenticeships starts in three years.

“The money is essentially an investment. If we match US productivity levels through these training measures, the £50 million will be worth an extra £2.4 billion to the economy.”

Dadd says Cogent’s industries need a combined total of 24,000 new production technicians over the next five years, which is why it is so important that the image of manufacturing improves. “We have to entice kids into vocational courses,” he says. “The future of British industry could rest on it.”

Lynn Tomkins, director for UK operations at Semta says: “The £65 million Train to Gain funding package will help employers to fund training programmes that will lead to real business benefits, including all-age apprenticeships, ‘skills for life’ (such as literacy, numeracy and English as a foreign language), management and leadership and business improvement techniques. Semta will work with companies to identify their skills needs and put together a tailored training plan, then help employers access the funds available. Right now, businesses are focused on survival, and our funding, specialised support and programmes are designed to meet the needs of employers in the real economy.”

Speaking at a forum held for its suppliers, BAE Systems’ Malcolm Dare supported the Compact approach: “I want every one of our suppliers to access the training they need, when and where they need it, with a minimum of red tape. That’s why Compact will simplify, extend and improve the support available through Train to Gain, helping firms fill skills gaps quickly.”

Apprenticeships
This year, among the most prominent advocates of the vocational work and learn apprenticeship programmes have been Prime Minister Gordon Brown and British business figurehead Sir Alan Sugar. The Prime Minister promised in January to oversee the adoption of 35,000 new apprenticeships over the coming years, bringing total levels to over 250,000. He announced the recruitment drive on a visit to Rolls-Royce’s aerospace plant in Derby, a company which itself will offer 220 such positions in 2009. Meanwhile, Sugar, the former Amstrad head and chief personality of hit TV show The Apprentice, has used his public personality as a platform to weigh in with his personal support for such roles and points prospective participants in the direction of the LSC’s new Apprenticeship scheme, outlined at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

The Learning and Skills Council is also keen to have the value of apprenticeships celebrated among a wider audience. It is currently taking entries for its sixth annual National Apprenticeship Awards and kicked off the campaign with a week-long promotional drive, during which celebrity business people such as Richard Farleigh (former Dragon on the BBC show Dragon’s Den), Levi Roots (successful entrepreneur) and Justin King (CEO, J Sainsbury) gave talks on the value to both employees and employers.

Currently administered by the LSC for small and medium-sized enterprises and by one of its divisions, the National Employer Service, for larger firms, the National Apprenticeship Service launches in April. The organisation will have overall responsibility for apprenticeship programmes and will oversee funding, assessment and marketing, in addition to providing a service matching employers with would-be apprentices. It will also host an Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network which will be used to promote more widespread initiation of apprenticeship programmes.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships
In addition to T2G and Apprenticeships is a programme from Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP). KTP describes this route as “Europe’s leading programme helping businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through better use of the knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK knowledge base.”

The programme aims to set up reciprocal relationships between businesses and academic institutions, with each benefiting from the transfer of each other’s knowledge and expertise. It supports effective collaboration on a specific and strategic innovation project by establishing three-way partnerships between a company, a knowledge base with skills relevant to the project (academic or research institution) and a high calibre associate working within the company, such as a recently qualified graduate.

One company that followed this route and found it to be a positive experience was Ruislip-based Wright Machinery. The company provides bespoke design consultancy, manufacturing installation and the commissioning of conveyor machinery to food manufacturers, with previous clients including Kellogg’s, Walkers Crisps and Tesco. To remain competitive, the company needed to continually improve its innovative strategies, quality and speed of delivery and drive down costs. With this in mind, it undertook a two year KTP with two graduate associates and the London South Bank University (LSBU).

The aim of the first associate’s KTP project was to design, develop and produce a new vibratory conveyor and reduce the overall manufacturing costs of the current line of products. The second associate was tasked with developing a company-wide planning, scheduling and control tool to generate achievable delivery dates within budget. Working in collaboration with the LSBU, the company developed a new range of modular conveyors using innovative patented technology and introduced IT tools for design, planning and scheduling, creating cultural changes in operations. As a result, new sales were achieved, as well as increased profits from new products and cost savings due to improved manufacturing and operational efficiency.

Wright’s managing director James Walsh says: “The principle of KTP has been excellent and we are delighted with the expected outcome. For businesses embarking on a KTP project, the benefits are exponential.” Financial director Angus Davidson adds: “By implementing a tool for delivery forecasting, the sales team can now offer clients realistic delivery dates. Previously we could not guarantee delivery and therefore lost business. Additionally, improving the visibility of our manufacturing process has freed up cash, which allows us to focus on the business development and attracting new customers.”

However, not all KTP experiences have been positive. Julian Wilson, director at military equipment interface -maker Matt Black Systems, has had a very different experience. “We are running a KTP at the moment and it is very frustrating,” he says. “The university we are partnered with is a complete fraud. They sold us their competency, yet once the programme was running the knowledge to be transferred seemed to have to come from the associate, not the university. When pressed, they say that what we are doing is not conventional, therefore there is no body of academic knowledge to transfer, and that they only have enough time allocated to the project to support the associate in their pastoral needs. Effectively, they are adamant that the associate is transferring the knowledge gained from their previous education [at university] and [since] we were the one who chose the associate, it is [therefore] our problem.

“And at the end of all the weasel words, they tried to make us sign an IPR agreement so that they could benefit from the results of the programme,” he adds.

Wilson says his experience with KTPs reflects a greater problem in the UK’s wider employment culture. “We have a tendency to value stability, keep doing what we did yesterday and cut costs a bit more; we only change our plans when we are forced to do so. My view is that the customer is not the pupil, student, associate, unemployed person, or the company involved. It is the state that these institutions aim at satisfying. The system is broken,” he adds.

Whether Mr Wilson’s experience is or is not representative of a significant chunk of KTP corporate partners, it is clear that much still needs to be done to make the system accessible, navigable and attractive to all companies and employers. To borrow an analogy recently regaled by a member of the manufacturing community, “some years ago the Japanese weregetting uncomfortable about karaoshi – death through overwork. So they established a team to look into this who, of course, beavered away for many an excessive hour attempting to find a way to solve the problem. I suspect the equivalent here is to establish a committee to investigate why there are so many committees.”