Christine Gaskell, Bentley Motors

Posted on 9 Nov 2011 by Tim Brown

With apprenticeships, as with other business support, small companies can feel left out in the cold. But Bentley’s personnel director Christine Gaskell, an expert on the interface between education and industry, says that help is at hand for smaller firms if government, the National Apprentice Service and industry can make it easier for companies to take apprentices on.

When it comes to providing work opportunities for young people, Christine Gaskell wears her heart on her sleeve. Joining Bentley Motors in 1996 from Leyland DAF, she soon became a member of the board for personnel – a sign of the famous car brand’s devotion to its staff.

Her numerous extra-work positions include being an ambassador for the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) in the North West, non-executive chairman of the training company Total People – one of largest work-based learning providers in the North West – and this year she was appointed chairman of the Cheshire and Warrington Local Economic Partnership. Her understanding of the skills needs, delivery mechanisms and HR issues for manufacturing in the automotive industry, and across industry in north-west England, is probably unmatched.

TM spoke to Christine Gaskell about Bentley’s human resources regime, her work as an Apprentice Ambassador and one of her key ambitions: to make apprenticeships more accessible to small and mediumsized businesses.

Christine Gaskell

What is the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network?
Sir Roy Gardner was asked by [ex-Prime Minister] Gordon Brown if he could get key employers in the apprenticeship agenda together, to create a dialogue where we could interact at senior level with government about how to promote apprenticeships. I am a founding member. It’s mainly represented by chief executives, and we get good showing from ministers. We take messages back into our businesses, and report back firsthand on what we think is important.

If the whole skills agenda is to be employer-led, which it should be, this is a great way for us to influence the policy decision making.

Is it working? Yes. We wanted a one-stop shop for apprenticeships, and NAS is very much the result of the lobbying we did. It explains what apprentices are, has helped to standardise qualifications and we have got the ear of ministers.

The UK apprentice agenda was pushed a long time before the [2008/9] recession. It was about business continuity to promote economic growth, not a response to recession.

What is the Bentley Academy?
When I joined Bentley, lots of companies such as Ford and British Leyland were providing training. But there was a sense that, as long as you were doing some kind of training or learning, that was enough. Funding could be spent on anything, from flower arranging to building dry stone walls.

We decided to focus on providing the skills that this business needed and came up with the Academy. The idea is that people feel good about learning, in a context suitable to us – that means technical skills, IT skills, language training, more graduates.

We now offer a plethora of training opportunities at all levels, from numeracy and literacy skills to degrees. The numbers are so big now we have a company awards night, this year held at Manchester University. It is about us being aspirational. It makes people here feel really good about the qualifications they’ve attained but also it makes it very attractive to encourage young people to work for us.

“The trick we’re missing [in the UK] is producing young people who are work ready. Too often young people come into companies like ours and we have to basically start from scratch. And it’s often the softer skills.” Christine Gaskell, Bentley personnel director

But Bentley hardly needs to attract people.
We’re the biggest employer in South Cheshire. Of course we’re a well-known company. Applications for our apprenticeships, across all departments, were up 300% this year.

Other organisations also offer both information and apprenticeships. The skills provision market in the UK is still convoluted – what’s being done?
It’s one of biggest issues we have: if we’re going to encourage more apprenticeships in the UK for smaller organisations, we have to get rid of some bureaucracy. That’s why we have NAS.

I have a whole team of people devoted to working out how you get through the [skills provision] bureaucracy, but we have 4,000 people. Small companies just haven’t got the resources.

Is NAS working? NAS has made a huge difference.
The big challenge is how you get small companies to realise that someone from NAS can visit them and consult on the type of apprentice they need in their business. That it’s not just for large companies. A lot of people still think that apprentices only apply in this industry [manufacturing]. There are over 168 frameworks, and if there isn’t a framework they’ll design one for you.

Bentley clearly does a lot to engage with young people.
But is it easier for you than an SME? Nearly every week we’re doing something for a school, college or group of young people, if you include our apprentices visiting local schools. We work from primary school level, we have open days for local teachers and headmasters. We offer over 175 work experience weeks for young people at Bentley every year, then there are summer placements and bursaries, with many graduates and young people working on placements all year round.

I judge micro companies in the Apprentice of the Year award. Some companies who employ just four people are still taking apprentices on and doing it exceptionally well. We [NAS] need to show examples of where excellent apprentice schemes are in place, and well embedded, at SMEs, to prove that you don’t need to be a Bentley. You also don’t need to talk to people like me, the best endorsement for apprentices are the apprentices themselves. One of the problems is that there is still a gulf between what the education systems thinks we are and the reality.

So what about reaching teachers and parents?
We’re trying. We began offering Level 4 apprenticeships this year. Most of the Level 3 apprentices on junior engineering programmes go on to do degrees, Level 4s take degrees from the start. We are definitely a viable alternative to university: you take your degree, you’re being paid, you haven’t got the debt and you’ve got a job.

The big issue is preparing kids for work. Schools and colleges need to do a lot more to help young people acquire the soft skills that business needs – motivation, timeliness, politeness, phone manner. They can’t just assume that these are innate skills – they are not.

Are weak core school subjects also a problem?
Yes. That’s why we’re going to primary schools and stressing the importance of these subjects. Too many schools give young people choice in subjects, but they don’t realise they’re taking choice [for employment] away. Children get to 16, they decide they’d like to work in a company like ours but they don’t have the subjects to be able to do that.

Are teachers getting it?
Some companies say they cannot get schools to visit them and there is an insurance cost to front. Both sides need to work far harder. It would be completely wrong to say it’s the education system’s fault and equally wrong to say industry is not articulating what it needs. We need common sense. People like us need to spend more time in schools and colleges and vice versa, rather than being two separate worlds.

What about the cost involved?
I really don’t recognise it. We have an awful lot of young people inside our business today, and insurance has never been raised as an issue. There are a lot of urban myths around.

There is a problem for SMEs in that they train an apprentice only for them to be poached by a large OEM.
I hear lots of these stories and yet figures show the apprentice retention rate, even with small companies, is very high. Yes three, four or five years down the road these apprentices might move on. But often the payback for apprentice training is 1-2 years. Also it’s not just about money, it’s about training opportunities. There are several things that you can do – help them get qualifications, a more stimulating job, show them their career progression, how to be a team leader and manager. I think it [poaching] is quite often an excuse.

How did Bentley’s HR strategy cope with the recession?
From 2007-2009 we went through a really tough time. We took the opportunity to upskill much of the workforce. We put over 700 people through various NVQ and BIT programmes.

It enabled us to both retain and improve skills. We also ringfenced our apprentice and graduate programmes, and recruited more in those years than 2006/7 when we made over 10,000 cars.

Too many companies switch training on and off like a tap, but it takes three to four years to train an apprentice. I acknowledge that we were fortunate to be able to do this with help from our parent, VW Group, who could not have been more supportive.