SMEs unite for influence on skills

Leaders and managers from seventeen SME firms gathered in the House of Lords yesterday to voice their concerns over access to quality skills provision and gain a stronger voice through unity.

The collection of SMEs was marshalled by Richard Bridgman, chairman of specialist engineering firm Warren Services and also chair for sector skills council Semta in East of England.

“SMEs have been overlooked for too long when it comes to their skills needs,” said Bridgman. “Government, Semta and training providers need to put themselves in the position of someone leading a ten man company if they are to develop a skills landscape which works for the majority of Britain’s engineering and manufacturing companies.”

Attendees at yesterday’s event, hosted in the House of Lords thanks to Semta patron and skills champion Baroness Wall of New Barnet, took part in a three hour debate and knowledge sharing session to draw out skills challenges, and solutions, which are specific to manufacturing SMEs.

The findings will be taken on board by Semta and Baroness Wall for use in lobbying government for changes to funding structures and the development of training provision.

A key outcome from debate will be presented to Skills Minister Matthew Hancock this week. This centred on the expiration of funding for apprenticeship training on an applicant’s 19th birthday.

“I get a lot of young people applying for apprenticeships who have gone to college – often urged by their parents – found that it is not for them and started looking for something more hands on, more vocational,” said Mr Bridgman. “But if they have fallen into the trap of being 19 by the time they apply then they could cost me £8000.”

SMEs cannot afford to let such well qualified applicants slip through their fingers according to attendees at this event.

Willing but concerned

In the main, attendees already provide apprenticeships to some degree. The average number of apprentices in place across the group of companies was three and the average intake per year 1.6.

With the exception of one company, all attendees were convinced of the value which apprenticeships can bring to their business in terms of protecting long term business continuity and maintaining competitive capabilities.

Indeed the key concern of most was how to source and acquire appropriate training for more apprentices in order to boost future competitiveness and growth. Barriers to doing so were vocalised as: lack of awareness of available support, frustration with regionalised vagaries in funding pots and poor quality or inappropriate training provision from local providers – particularly colleges.

One attendee, Peter Wilkinson who is non-executive director of pipe bending firm Unison and co-founder of Scarborough Engineering Week, recalled how he and a group of local employers, “made [the local college] scrap their engineering department completely because what they were providing was so irrelevant to what we needed. We got hold of some funding and redesigned the department for them.” In this way the Scarborough engineering community ensured the local college ran courses on robotics engineering which were up to date and matched the requirements of more local engineering firms.

Engagement needed with colleges and skills

This interventionalist attitude was applauded by many including Adam Golding General Manager at Delstar Engineering. “Our Managing Director used to be an apprentice and is now on the governing board of our local college and we work very closely with them.”

However, said Mr Golding, “The colleges face the same problem as us in that they can’t find the level of skills they need to lecture.”

They key barrier to appropriate training provision in colleges, was however seen to be a mis-match between education strategy and business requirements. The boiled down to persistent target setting around sending students to university rather than vocational training.

“We need to change the messaging so that higher and advanced apprenticeships are seen as the equal to a university education,” said Stephen Lilley, Apprenticeship Manager for the Semta Apprenticeship Service. “Indeed apprenticeships should be seen as the preferred route for vocational careers.

This observation led to criticism of careers advice in schools – though on being asked how many employers among those present actually engage with their local schools by giving and receiving visits on around a third raised their hands. Some had tried and found themselves knocked back or used as a means of occupying students who are disruptive in class.

Looking for positives in existing resources for careers advice, Anthony Howell, director of Active Technologies, did introduce U-Explore.com as a valuable tools for connecting employers with potential recruits.

But while acknowledging difficulties in finding quality provision and attracting well qualified applicants Andrew Churchill, managing director of JJ Churchill, said that the onus is on employers to ensure they communicate potential progression routes when recruiting apprentices. “If we want to attract youngsters into our businesses, upskill them and keep them, then we must be willing to support apprentices through to degree level. We shouldn’t bulk at that. It is not just the role of JCB, Caterpillar and other big companies.”

Mr Churchill advised identifying core technology areas where skills are developing quickly ahead of traditional approaches to train apprentices to the maximum. “My best and brightest trainees who show aptitude in non-destructive testing techniques and metrology will be taken on to degree level.” Churchill urged SME leaders, “as people with real jobs,” to be more upfront about such opportunities and to talk about them with the parents at local schools.

Help at hand

Among all the discussion of difficulties in boosting apprenticeship numbers in SMEs it became clear that knowledge of available assistance, guidance and avenues for influence was patchy.

But representatives from Semta were keen to communicate that this need not be a barrier to apprenticeship provision and growth.

Existing services like the Semta Apprenticeship Service (SAS), which provides fully managed apprenticeships on the behalf of employers, can save valuable time and money being spent on researching skills funding options, sourcing appropriate training and recruiting an apprentice.

SAS negates the requirement for more HR resource when taking on an apprentice – a key concern for many SMEs.

Other options for increasing influence on skills provision and simplifying the apprenticeship training process were identified in Group Training Associations and Apprentice Training Agencies. New models for sourcing quality applicants through tapping into the fallout pool from blue-chip apprenticeship recruitment programmes were also discussed.

For more information on the outcome from this roundtable, which also included discussion of how to achieve gender balance in manufacturing, please contact Joanne Iceton: JIceton@semta.org.uk.