Interview: Nigel Whitehead, MD at BAE Systems

TM catches up with BAE Systems MD, Nigel Whitehead to discuss the power of engaging young people in manufacturing.

Nigel Whitehead - BAE Systems
Nigel Whitehead, Managing Director, BAE Systems

You’ve recently opened up a number of opportunities for George Edwards to explore career opportunities at BAE. Do you often take such a direct interest in a talented young individual?

George’s experience is probably the exception rather than the rule, but I certainly take a keen interest in helping promising individuals further their careers. As a company we do try and give as many young people as possible a direct experience of our business. Every year we provide hundreds of work experience and industrial placements and we also support ‘Take your Son and Daughter to Work Day’. In addition, our schools roadshow will inspire 30,000 pupils at 350 schools this year to consider science and engineering as a future career.

Would you say it is important for industry leaders to occasionally take a direct interest in giving a young person a ‘break’ – do you think it helps to inspire others?

Yes, I believe it can be inspiring to see other young people being bold, taking a chance on something they believe in, and ultimately being recognised for it.

What qualities in a young person are most likely to make an industry leader take this kind of action in your opinion?

A keen interest in the subject and a very enquiring mind.

George has said he felt “insulted” at first when he was advised by some quarters to take an apprenticeship. What do you think this says about progress on levelling the value of vocational and academic education?

It says to me that we all need to work harder to continue to alter the perception of apprenticeships. Some great advances have been made in recent years but there is clearly more to be done. An example I often use is the fact that over half of the senior leadership team in our military air business is made up of former apprentices – an apprenticeship really can be the start of an exceptional career!

Do you believe there are distinct roles for graduates and apprentices in manufacturing organisations and if so, why?

Whilst it’s true that our craft apprentices will often start their careers on the ‘shop floor’ as it were, there are no restrictions placed on them in terms of future career moves, and the same holds true for our graduates. If a capable individual is enthusiastic about pursuing a particular area of engineering or manufacturing we encourage and help them to do that.

What should employers do to manage the career progression of an outstandingly talented young person – would you worry that singling them out too obviously would isolate them from their peers, while not giving them enough opportunities that might lead to them getting bored and moving on?

At BAE Systems, our SIGMA programme has been set up for exceptional young people, whether they joined as an apprentice or graduate. We have not experienced any problems in singling out particularly talented people. Our employees are mature and understand that some people thrive in the more intense and demanding experience offered by our SIGMA programme.

Read a brief biography of Nigel Whitehead here.