Flexing the workforce in 2013

Posted on 24 Jul 2013 by The Manufacturer

The Flexible Workforce 2013 conference, part of The Manufacturer's Future Factory Series, arrived at Birmingham's Hilton Metropole recently as manufacturers from across the country came together to share and discuss insights on the work force issues of today.

As one of the most emotive subjects currently within the industry, the modern workforce encapsulates a range of challenges in manufacturing and beyond.

Bringing delegates together for a series of speeches, discussion panels and networking opportunities, the true potential of a flexible and engaged workforce was comprehensively addressed.

Proceedings kicked off with Jon West, director of employee relations at locally-based Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), discussing the impact of the financial crisis and globalisation on the workplace.

Mr West elaborated on recent challenges facing big and profitable companies such as JLR. Having hired 1282 new engineers in the last three years, and with 6000 applicants to its Solihull site alone, the demand for roles in the automotive sector remains strong.

But with an estimated 87,000 engineers needed by 2020, the stigma of it being a “dirty” career must be addressed in young people, Mr West added.

A change of industry but firmly along the same lines was Paul Harnetty, operations direction for The Authentic Food Company. Based in the North West and taking on three apprentices annually compared to JLR’s 255, Mr Harnetty discussed the importance of employee engagement to aid productivity and prosperity in the work place.

He cited examples big and small of how the company has gone about improving communication with its workforce. Ideas have ranged from providing free weekly fruit, introducing a cycle to work scheme and even incentivising job roles with the aim of winning tickets to Manchester United football matches.

Rounding out the first session were Teentech founders Chris Dodson OBE and broadcaster Maggie Philbin, who serves as CEO of the initiative promoting career possibilities in Science, Engineering and Technology.

In another change of direction to a greatly diverse subject matter, Jeff Neild of manufacturers’ organisation EEF, discussed the practicalities of managing flexibility and change.

As head of employee and industrial relations at the advisory body, Mr Neild said introducing measures to ensure a flexible workforce are desirable for all but not easily achievable.

He detailed the peaks and troughs of managing change in a collective environment, citing the strict reference period of banked hours, communication between departments and reasoning as to why more flexibility is required.

Peter Woodthorpe, environmental & quality manager at Craftsman Tools, shared insight into how his company, now in its 60th year, has engaged its workforce to identify waste.

In a technical industry, Mr Woodthorpe put his success down to more simple factors – common sense and an improvement in quality to reduce cost.

His example was in Craftsman’s recent investment in a new compressor, which was 50% more efficient and over time saved the company £250k but eliminated scrap and process improvements.

Undoubtedly one of the most detailed and fascinating presentations was by Rhys Williams, the ex-Wales Rugby International turned Government and Business Relations Leader at GE Aviation Wales.

Mr Williams detailed the impact of a large employer in an industrially strong area. With GE Aviation boasting a 99% retention rate, only losing the 1% to factors such as retirement and moving to other company areas, it was well placed to share recruitment methods.

Having been aided by funding initiatives by the EU, Semta and the Welsh government, GE Aviation subsidises the training and pays wages to support apprenticeships. It also works on the basis of continually bringing in new talent to meet demand and improve productivity throughout the company.

The day concluded with one of the event’s most anticipated speakers, Julian Wilson, the maverick managing director of aerospace and defence suppliers Matt Black. Situated in Poole on the south coast, Matt Black is a company that has completely torn up the rule book in the way it runs its company, as it operates as a flat management organisation, essentially without hierarchy.

Although with retaining different levels of pay, Mr Wilson argued that more multi-skilled employees managing themselves produced more innovative approaches, an effective formula given the company’s recent announcement of record turnover and profit.

Mr Wilson, who stated he believed a workforce-driven approach was needed for all businesses in the 21st century to truly succeed, told the story of the company banning overtime which was counteracted with monthly bonuses. With productivity up 300%, perhaps this most unique of approaches to management and employees could be imitated on a larger scale.

The consensus from a great majority of attendees is that a flexible workforce is a necessity in order to obtain success. Driving towards that remains the most challenging conundrum. Every business is different and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another, but it is the small things that create the biggest battles.

The event speakers were living proof that workplaces listening to staff in order to get the formula correct, yet remaining open to changing environments, will produce long-term success.