Mirror mirror on the wall

Posted on 12 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

Manufacturers are being told to change their image from all quarters. But just what do they get out of it? Annie Gregory discovers that passionate commitment can still be married to effective bottom line benefits

According to a recent report commissioned by Sheffield City Council, youngsters think manufacturing is declining, and their view is hurting the industrial economy badly: “The next generation of workers often choose career paths based on information gained from relatives – and this can sometimes be a history of poor working conditions and redundancy. It is important that the reality of the manufacturing industry today, and the opportunities it offers, are clearly articulated and promoted to challenge outdated perceptions.” This picture is echoed across the UK. We have a problem and unless we find effective ways of addressing it, our future as a manufacturing nation is bleak indeed.

There are, of course, many established, worthwhile national initiatives directed at opening young people’s eyes to the excitement of industry. STEMNET (www.stemnet.org.uk) is probably the best first step for any company wanting to influence young people to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related careers. It is also the starting point for the excellent Science and Engineering Ambassadors scheme that provides qualified volunteers to work with young people and teachers.

Despite this, however, it is often difficult for companies to relate their individual issues to the overall picture. Few manufacturers work in a vacuum; they accept their responsibility to strengthen the sector’s image but they also have limited resources, so national initiatives are often left on the back burner. Self-interest must play a part. So let’s take a look at those who believe that action – even at a local level – also means direct, bottom line benefits.

First of all, does your company look like a place for young, ambitious people? Alex Sheehan, daughter of the founder of Swansea contract manufacturer SIC had her doubts: “We’re market leader in our field – but until recently we certainly didn’t look like it.” So she gave up her successful career in market branding and PR to become commercial manager of the family business. “In the past six months we’ve re-branded, changed our corporate imagery and are refurbishing our site to reflect our new brand image. It’s all about giving people confidence in our abilities so that we don’t have to convince them that we’ll do a great job – instead they expect it.”

Dr Alan McLenaghan, site director of Saint- Gobain Glass UK (SGGUK) in North Yorkshire also thinks appearances matter, both to employees and to local residents. “We aren’t spending huge amounts of money,” he explains, “but we clean up the rubbish from takeaways outside our plant every week; we want it to look nice for people. My gateman stopped me one night and told me that a lady in the nearby village picked up litter while she was walking her dog. We sent her flowers to tell her we appreciate it and she was over the moon.”

It’s one small item in a long list of actions SGGUK takes to maintain its standing and, by extension, that of manufacturing as a whole. So far this year it has hosted four educational visits, with another three planned. Last year 11 visits gave 220 students an insight into the real nature of industry. This year, in addition to the now routine STEM Fairs, the site has run workshops on magnetism at Discovery Days, a three-day event at York Railway museum. Organised by North Yorkshire Business Education Partnership, it featured 15 other companies and attracted over 3,000 visitors. SGGUK sponsors and attends two of the monthly STEM Fairs, one for primary school children and another for GCSE students. Younger members are introduced to light and magnets while older ones, acting as architects, are tasked with bringing a project to life within a strict budget. The STEMs routinely reach out to 900 students. SGGUK provides two-week placements for first year GCSE students in local schools as well as secondments for college students. Its links with education, however, go beyond its immediate community. For the second year running it has acted as host to 15 teachers of GCSE Manufacturing from across the UK. We’ll come back to this since it is an excellent example of how a local initiative can influence and support the relationship between business and education nationally.

Locally, students from Hensall Primary display new artwork in the admin office each month. The plant is also working with Whitley & Eggborough Primary School to design a new recycling logo and mascot as part of its Health and Safety Day. “We want to educate young people on the importance of recycling whilst adding character to our own on-site scheme,” says McLenaghan. “The top five entries will receive a high street voucher and the winning design will be made from our waste products.” Selby High School is currently designing a set of five mosaic pictures around the theme of business helping the environment. The designs will be created out of recycled glass bottles by artist Helen Slater, who also worked with SGGUK on a series of glass monoliths designed by a student from Brayton College and now erected outside reception.

It’s a big contribution by any standards but SGGUK is only 195-strong. So where’s the return? Look no further than the employee survey, says McLenaghan. At 87 percent, the satisfaction score is 10 per cent over the UK norm: “Since we escalated the amount we do in the community, morale has gone up. People feel proud of their company. They only see good news items about us in the local press – sponsoring kiddies’ football teams or running a science and engineering fair or giving time off work for school governors – and it all adds up.” This is clearly reflected in recruitment: “When we put a job out, we don’t even need to advertise. It goes on the internal notice board and friends and families apply in their droves.” Although it has helped to raise the image of manufacturing locally, he thinks only a concerted effort across industry will have a longlasting effect. “We don’t have the media access that many other careers have. And when manufacturers are presented in either drama or fact we are the bad guys or even the dull guys. Yet we
have jobs that need high-level skills, intellect and offer great opportunities for advancement.”

Co-operating with education is a golden way of getting that message home but it’s important to pitch it right. The focus may be on material science for university graduates but, for seven-year olds, it’s on fun. McLenaghan says insurance companies may need persuading but “we want them to open the furnace, to look inside and feel the heat; we want them to see glass being cut and experience the whole process, not just some sanitised walk through the plant. And they love it; seven year olds ask the questions you can’t answer.” Don’t get the wrong idea: this plant puts safety at the very top of its priorities: “We have very simple rules that apply whether you are a professor or a seven-year old. You must go through the full safety induction, walk with a host and wear an orange hat that tells everyone you must be accompanied. And you don’t touch unless you have been told it’s alright.” He thinks manufacturers turn down visits through unwarranted fears: “We want a safe environment for everyone, not just the kids. If it’s safe for our workforce, it’s safe for the children.”

McLenaghan, does, however, turn down requests for other reasons. Basically, he puts the effort into schools attended by employees’ children. SGGUK wants long-term links rather than one-off experiences. It prepares long and hard for each visit and it simply can’t spread its resources thinly.
This doesn’t preclude wider benefits. The UK-wide teacher programme largely arose from the help it gave to Selby High’s manufacturing curriculum. They come to discuss forming links with their own local businesses and to assess some of the educational packages stemming from the simulation tools SGGUK uses to teach operational skills to its own employees. These work like a Playstation game – a natural learning mode for today’s youngsters. “We took a systematic approach to make it fit into the curriculum as a whole rather than just supplying a local tool,” explains McLenaghan. “We worked with them to create examples specific to their GCSE; they showed it to others and it has cascaded from there.” He clearly gets great satisfaction from a fairly small plant influencing a national qualification.

It all comes at a price. The educational coordinator spends 75 per cent of her time on schools liaison; operator time, meal costs and small giveaways bring the total to somewhere near £100,000 for a site turning over some £75 million. “We think it is money well spent,” says McLenaghan. Smaller manufacturers obviously can’t contribute on the same scale but he hopes they will still do something within their own context. Two factors might persuade them: “If I stopped the visits, I can guarantee our people would ask what was happening. They enjoy it and are proud of it.” Secondly, and more fundamentally, he firmly believes that manufacturing can only train skills, not attitudes. “We bring in the attitudes we want but we are also trying to create them at a younger age.

Our little contribution won’t be the deciding factor – their parents, friends and schools will be that. But we all have a positive part to play.”