TM talks to Norbar Torque Tools about establishing an apprentice programme that works for the business and how staff have engaged with their responsibilities for nurturing trainees.
Speaking with TM for its article Paving the apprenticeship path, Matt Scarff, senior business development advisor at awarding body EAL recommended that manufacturers establish apprenticeship programmes which integrate with existing business processes and production schedules. “An apprenticeship programme should not feel like something that has come in from outer space and been imposed onto the business,” he said.
Instead, Mr Scarff explained that practical training and assessment should be developed to fit with business needs, responding to production plans and peaks and troughs in demand. “The NVQ code of practice gives clear expectations about what an apprentice must achieve in order to complete their training,” he said. “But a good apprenticeship provider will sit down with an employer and design in flexibility around when and how certain skills are acquired and demonstrated. We don’t want employers to think they will have an apprentice who has to perform an exercise in wiring widget A to widget B on every third Tuesday of the month until an assessor says they are competent at it.”
Using demand planning and production schedules, an apprenticeship programme can and should be formed to support business performance. This is a principle which family run torque specialist Norbar Torque Tools applies religiously in its apprenticeship programme.
Wanda Stewart-Lee, HR manager at Norbar and the staff member responsible for developing each of the company’s bespoke apprenticeships, observes “It is just as important that the person delivering one-to-one training, whether it be the line manager, cell leader or another member of staff, knows in advance exactly what an apprentice needs to learn and to what standard. And unless you plan carefully when and where these skills are to be learned, you run the risk of simply using apprentices as ad hoc labour and they don’t achieve anything, either for themselves or the company.”
Martin Reynolds, manufacturing manager at Norbar agrees and says: “Wanda and I will sit down and plan apprenticeship programmes together. Part of this includes making sure that we have the resource we need in every area where the apprentice is to work. No one should ever feel over loaded by having responsibility for an apprentice in their area.”
If resource does appear to fall short, Norbar has found ways to be flexible while still ensuring apprentices do not miss out on essential training.
“No one should ever feel over loaded by having responsibility for an apprentice in their area,” Martin Reynolds, Manufacturing Manager, Norbar Torque Tools.
“There was an occasion when we found ourselves short staffed in an area for which we were doing some significant recruitment,” recalls Ms Stewart-Lee. “Obviously it would not be in the best interests of the apprentice or the business to push forward with the programme in that area at that time. So we deferred that part of the training until we had enough staff to provide the apprentice with the attention they would need.”
Mr Reynolds confirms that this flexibility is achieved collaboratively,
“We have a good culture of communication across departments at Norbar,” he says. “We work together to ensure that apprentices are in the right place at the right time, for their development and for the business’s needs.”
With 240 employees Norbar is not a large company, but it is a prosperous and efficient SME. Acknowledging the advantage this gives in gaining flexibility around apprenticeship delivery, Mr Reynolds comments, “I can see that smaller companies might feel they do not have the resource to support an apprentice properly. I can see how they might feel they cannot afford the disruption.”
The challenge of how to allay concerns about the cost of apprenticeships and the resource they require in terms of staff commitment is something the sector skills councils are working hard to achieve. Semta and Cogent for example have developed the Semta Apprenticeship Service and the Technical Apprenticeship Service which attempt to ‘hide the wiring’ of apprenticeship delivery and support employers through the establishment of an apprenticeship programme.
These initiatives are enjoying some success, but Semta’s CEO Philip Whiteman recently admitted in an interview with TM, “I never feel we have quite ‘cracked’ SMEs”. With the licensing of sector skills councils currently under review by UKCES this problem remains a major hurdle in plugging industry skills gaps and encouraging growth in the manufacturing sector.
To try and mitigate these concerns Stewart-Lee highlights that companies can spread apprenticeship responsibility into their supply chains. “We don’t always provide all the training for an apprentice on site,” she says. “We are lucky to have sub contract processes which apprentices are able to go and visit. For certain skills this is very important.”
Ultimately though, one of the most important elements in ensuring that staff do not feel managing an apprentice is an extra burden to their job role, is communication of the benefits a qualified apprentice will bring to a specific discipline.
At Norbar, managers in each discipline are able to work with Stewart-Lee to spot apprentices with a particular talent for work in their area. Norbar’s apprenticeship scheme is four years long, but towards the end of this period the business will indentify exactly where each should be placed for a full time role with the company.
“Wanda coordinates meetings with managers from across the business about every three months to review apprentice progress,” explains Reynolds. “In the last 18 months of the apprenticeship individuals are allocated to a future role and their progress becomes closely monitored by the departmental manager who will benefit from the additional resource. This encourages discipline-specific skills to be honed for identified requirements.”
Norbar’s apprenticeship scheme is well respected locally and the company is never short of applicants for the few apprentice spaces it provides each year. Awareness of the scheme is promoted at open-evenings for local schools. The latest, held on February 28, boasted 140 visitors.
Applicants are recruited each year in the spring and work with the company through the summer months ready to start the college-based part of their training in the autumn.