Jonny Williamson uncovers the Birmingham firm championing that manufacturing apprenticeships aren’t just for engineers.
With the Government committing itself to the ambitious target of creating 3 million apprentices by 2020, it would appear that vocational qualifications have returned to the political fore and are once again back in fashion.
Though you could describe Westminster’s shift in focus as being long overdue, programmes such as National Apprenticeship Week and the National Apprenticeship Awards highlight the key role apprentices play in companies the length and breadth of the country, alongside the depth of opportunity they offer.
However, there is an important aspect that has been missing from the conversation to date, something that fourth-generation, family-owned independent pressworks, Frank Dudley Ltd. (FDL) aims to address.
“Completing an industry apprenticeship doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to spend the rest of your career on the shop floor; once an individual gains a solid general understanding of engineering, that then opens up a wide variety of progression pathways,” FDL’s business development manager, Josh Dudley-Toole tells me.
The ‘original apprentice’
Alongside several of the production leaders and planning roles, every one of the senior managers at FDL started as apprentices, including chairwoman, Jill Dudley-Toole – oldest daughter of founder, Frank Dudley.
Having clocked up an impressive 68 years of service, Jill has become affectionately known as the ‘original apprentice’.
The chairwoman explains to me that – in the eyes of FDL – it’s absolutely vital that staff start on the shop floor, whether they choose to stay there or not, because that’s where they are able to gain a real understanding of the business, a sense of how it operates and the processes it performs.
“If you’ve performed the job yourself, you can truly appreciate what it requires and how any future decisions you make will affect it. It also teaches you to identify potential production issues and, crucially, to listen to your workforce,” Jill says.
Historically, FDL filled workforce gaps separately in a somewhat ad hoc manner. However, that all changed about six years ago when the firm’s tool maker hit 60 combined with its tool room and maintenance managers announcing their intention to retire.
The resulting gaps in both knowledge and skill, in the words of Josh, set the alarm bells ringing, with the business struggling to find suitable replacements.
“We never want to be in that position again, so we looked at each of our key roles and started to cover them in a far more proactive manner, rather than simply reacting,” he explained.
Realising that its apprenticeship training could be better structured and more efficient if delivered in groups, FDL took on its first five-strong cohort of apprentices in 2010, all of which spent a month in each area of the company – the tool room; tool setting; welding; production control; quality control and management; accounts, and sales.
Past apprentice and current production manager, Alex Hammond says that such an approach offered them a firm grasp of the overall business and allowed them to identify which area would best suit their skills and personalities, both as individuals and FDL as a whole.
“When you experience first-hand the company’s commitment to employee development, it makes you realise why so many of the workers have remained here for 10, 20, 30 years, even longer,” he notes.
Machine setter, Dan Fulford agrees, adding that the flexibility offered by the business is a major differentiator. Now in his tenth year with FDL, he says that he also received training at college running alongside the workplace, working towards an NVQ in Engineering.
“I started as an apprentice tool maker, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I was doing in the tool room, so, I asked the management if I could move to become an apprentice machine setter, something which better suited me,” Fulford adds.
Positions held at FDL by current and former apprentices, include:
- Steve Boot, quality engineer (apprenticeship)
- Dave Challenor, tooling engineer (progressed to a further college training course)
- Jordan Cummins, trainee toolmaker (apprenticeship)
- Josh Dudley-Toole, business development manager
- Elliot Dudley-Toole, accounts manager (University training course)
- Dan Fulford, machine setter (college training course)
- Katie Green, administrator (apprenticeship)
- Alex Hammond, production manager (college training course)
- Sam Jones, maintenance engineer (apprenticeship)
- Brett Monk, head of planning (college training course)
To expedite the progression from shop floor to management, FDL also began to incorporate off-site college courses for its workers to be trained in business, people and process management.
Looking back over the past six years and FDL’s apprenticeship programme to date, the average age of staff has fallen to 38 – lower than the industry standard of between 43 and 44, though the company has set itself the goal of dropping its average to the low-30s.
One way of achieving that goal is to further raise its apprentice intake by leveraging the business’ recent growth, culminating in its most successful 12-months since the recession last year – with turnover surpassing £6 million.
“Our significant growth has seen us expand FDL’s apprenticeship programme to accepting five to seven apprentices every 24-30 months. As we expand the business and our workforce, more staff will be on hand to coach and mentor apprentices, allowing us to take on more and more often,” predicts Josh.