Manufacturing skills: winning hearts and minds

Posted on 2 Nov 2023 by The Manufacturer

The Manufacturing Assembly Network (MAN) has highlighted people as one of the key pillars of its MANifesto to boost UK industrial performance. Malcolm Condon, HR People Partner at MAN member PP Control & Automation, believes a collective push needs to be made to change perceptions and influence at grassroots level.

At the risk of using a sporting analogy, if you want to develop a strong skills pipeline of talent you need to make sure that things are working at grassroots level.

Swap footballs, cones and nets with production cells, inspection stations and prototyping and you kind of understand the challenge we are experiencing in modern-day British industry.

It’s a similar situation that was facing The Football Association before they invested in continuity and St George’s Park. Now I’m not suggesting we build a multi-million campus for manufacturing (although it may not be a bad idea), but there are some ‘easy wins’ we could all employ to make sure we are highlighting the multitude of career opportunities that are available in engineering and manufacturing.

A starting point would be for government to invest and promote STEM subjects, not just in universities and colleges but actually in ensuring some of that funding is directed to activities with secondary and primary education.

Sowing the seeds when children are learning about different jobs has to be one of the priorities, as we look to shift outdated perceptions of industry towards the modern-day sector we all know and love.

This is something we are very passionate about at PP Control & Automation (PP C&A) and already work with several schools to host factory visits, provide mentoring opportunities, work experience and STEM projects.

The benefits are there for both sides and we are now seeing students we have worked with choose to come here because of our engagement at an earlier stage of their life.

It is a feature we want to drive home as part of the Manufacturing Assembly Network’s MANifesto and, in particular, the people pillar that we are promoting to solve the skills and labour shortages many companies are currently suffering from.

PP C&A aim to create a working environment that is both a fun place to work and one in which employees feel empowered to make a difference

The eight companies that make up the collective all invest in apprentices and graduates, not to mention coming together to host the UK’s largest Design & Make Challenge that gives 80 Year 10 and Year 11 students the opportunity to test their STEM skills against each other.

We now want other manufacturers to tackle the skills crisis head on by doing more to help develop the next generation of engineers and are offering to share the proven blueprint we have created to support ‘engagement’.

The ‘hard yards’ have already been done in overcoming some of the issues that exist when dealing with academic institutions and we believe we can pave the way to build the volume of relationships industry needs to reverse the direction the skills shortage is heading.

Investing in the talent

Attracting staff is one part of the challenge, but once you have managed to recruit it is vital that you retain the talent in the business.

With the growth we have experienced in recent years, we are now topping more than 230 people at our world class facility in Cheslyn Hay, each one of them an important cog in how we continually meet the daily requirements of 20+ of the world’s largest machinery builders.

But how do we retain these skills with the volatility of the labour market and competition from major employers nearby, such as JLR, JCB and Collins Aerospace?

We always prefer a proactive approach to difficult situations, and this is no different. Rather than hope for the best like so many firms do, we have one of industry’s most progressive cultures that places personal development, wellbeing and creativity at its heart.

Just this year, we have seen investment in staff training pass the £5m mark since our current Chief Executive Tony Hague took over in 2003.

He’s a firm believer in getting the most out of people and always refers to one of his favourite sayings when asked if some of the money is wasted when employees leave. The stock response is ‘well what happens if we didn’t train them and they stayed?’.

It certainly makes sense the more you think about it and perhaps explains why so much importance is placed on Bright Sparks, our in-house training school.

This is designed to ignite the flames of curiosity and empower people to embrace lifelong learning by developing technical expertise and leadership skills through a combination of online learning, external courses and on-the-job shadowing.

We didn’t stop there, quickly introducing Bright Sparks University that champions diverse learning pathways, technical excellence, leadership and continuous improvement.

There’s no point trying to pretend you know all the answers as a management team, so, in order to understand what matters to our colleagues and where to focus our efforts each year, we run a full engagement survey in February.

UK’s largest Design & Make Challenge that gives 80 Year 10 and Year 11 students the opportunity to test their STEM skills against each other
Malcolm Condon at the UK’s largest Design & Make Challenge that gives 80 Year 10 and Year 11 students the opportunity to test their STEM skills against each other

This asks our people what they think is going well and where we could improve, and this is followed up by a series of ‘Voice’ forums in which we share the results of the survey and work with each of our teams to identify how we can improve.  In October, we revisited the survey through a ‘Pulse’, and this helps us to identify if we are heading in the right direction or not.

Risk and, importantly, rewards

PP C&A is more than just a business; it’s a community. We want our employees to feel a strong sense of belonging and to be part of something bigger than just themselves.

We aim to create a working environment that is both a fun place to work and one in which employees feel empowered to make a difference, are recognised for their individuality and their contribution. This is where ‘Switched-on’ comes into its own.

Any of our employees can fill in a Nomination Form each month, with everyone nominated receiving a customised badge and small gift – this could be a bottle of wine or chocolates.

Our team of Wellbeing Champions then collectively decide if anyone has gone the extra mile and deserves to be given a more substantial reward in the form of vouchers, a personalised gift or employee of the month title.

To put it simply, ‘Switched On’ is all about celebrating and recognising the contribution of our colleagues and thanking them for a job well done – it’s the little things that can make all the difference when you are looking to attract and retain your staff.

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