Workforce and skills: A training template

Posted on 6 Dec 2012 by The Manufacturer

Sarah Sillars, the new chief executive of Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing, highlights an example of best practice in addressing a potentially devastating skills gap.

Mrs Sillars knows more businesses need to be made aware of and benefit from the expertise of the organisation she now heads.

She joined Semta after leaving her role as executive chair of the Institute of Motor Industry and so is well versed in the challenges facing companies in the UK.

“I am delighted to join Semta at such an important time for the organisation,” she says. “We are in a changing skills landscape where employers have the opportunity to shape provision and co-invest in the design and delivery of vocational training.

“Semta is well-positioned to make a real difference to the sector’s productivity and competitiveness with a range of targeted services and programmes.”

A striking example

Mid-sized manufacturer Autotech is a case in point and its journey has particularly struck Semta’s new CEO.

Andy Robinson, chief executive of Autotech, recently had to turn away around £10m worth of business that went abroad because he couldn’t get the right skills or the right people. He knew his company had to do more to grow its own talent to capitalise on these opportunities, and needed help to kick start the process.

Until last year he had never even heard of Semta. Now his company has a fruitful partnership, which is starting to make a real difference to the business.

“I attended the Automated Britain event where Semta’s UK operations director Lynn Tomkins was speaking,” he said. “She was telling the audience many wonderful examples of the big companies like BAE and Jaguar Land Rover that Semta are working with.

“She also mentioned work with SMEs so I grabbed her afterwards and asked given that she was working with some of our key customers and that we had very similar issues why had we, the largest independent control systems company in the UK, not heard of Semta?”

Since then Autotech has been exploring ways of building further on this early success. Mr Robinson believes “the partnership can only grow stronger from here.”

Working with Semta, Autotech drew up a structured approach to recruitment and development which saw 70 young people tested and interviewed.

In October the first 21 recruits entered the newly-created Autotech Academy to be trained to meet demand from clients in automotive, logistics, airports, food & beverage, metals, utilities, oil & gas, mining & aggregates and power generation industries.

Semta will help deliver the Advanced Apprenticeships, Higher Apprenticeships and Graduate Programme offered by the Autotech Academy.

Mr Robinson said: “Apprentices are essential to our future. We always took three or four on every year but I felt we needed to do more, to do something on a much bigger scale.

“I want to be in a position where 10% of the workforce are apprentices,” he continues. The academy initiative has taken Autotech to about 8%.

“It has not been easy – it requires investment, restructuring and commitment,” warns Robinson. “But it is the right thing to do, if we are to sustain our business growth of more than 20% year on year.”

Sarah Sillars at The Skills Show at the NEC, Birmingham

The Autotech Academy will provide structured training to fast-track both school leavers and graduates. It will bring high calibre engineers into the business to ensure it can continue to expand. It will also give young people nationally recognised qualifications and transferable skills in addition to a proper salary in a cutting edge technology business.

“Without Semta’s involvement, we couldn’t have got this far,” asserts Robinson. “We wouldn’t have known how to use the different skills, techniques and funding initiatives available to support our aspirations.”

Based in Silsoe, Bedford and Birmingham, Autotech acquired Igranic Control Systems and PSJ Fabrications earlier this year to form the Automated Technology Group.

The group with a combined turnover of around £35 million now has more than 350 engineers and technicians with a wide range of skills, including welding, fabrication, electrical engineering, mechanical design, software/ robot programming, electrical assembly and installation.

Semta is responsible for 132,000 companies and a 1.7 million-strong workforce that make up UK advanced manufacturing and engineering including aerospace and defence, automotive, marine, metals and electronics.

However, 363,000 of the current technical workforce are qualified below world-class standards and 14% of the sector’s workforce is aged 60+. Just 9% are aged 16-24 compared to a national average of 14%.

£1,000 grants are currently being offered to SME’s who recruit an unemployed graduate for a minimum of 12 weeks. For further details please contact Semta Customer Services on 0845 643 9001 or visit

Robinson likens his business to the inside of a computer – not being the visible brand but providing the vital component to help the systems people encounter every day run smoothly.

“Whether it be at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Cadbury’s, Amazon, Asda, Scottish Power or Thames Water, wherever, we are helping to make their systems work to the maximum potential,” he said.

He is now working with Semta to recruit five graduates and is very interested in the innovative Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme that will allow him to put employees with no prerequisite qualifications to study individual Masters level modules that are applicable to his business which will help him upskill his existing workforce.

“I want to be in a position where 10% of the workforce are apprentices” – Andy Robinson, CEO, Autotech

Spreading the word

Sarah Sillars believes the work of Autotech should help convince others to engage with Semta and design solutions for their own business – which will, in turn, help the sector and the UK economy as a whole.

“ATG’s academy is an excellent example of how SMEs can respond to the skills challenge,” she said. “We are delighted that ATG has taken on 21 apprentices this year – 8% of its workforce – who we will support through a combination of on-the-job training and technical learning to acquire the skills, knowledge and confidence required for a successful career in engineering.

“Semta research indicates that to deal with retirements alone, industry needs to recruit and train 82,000 engineers, scientists and technicians across the UK by 2016 and 363,000 of the current technical workforce are qualified below world class standards and need to be skilled up.

“Under my stewardship we will work even harder to make it easier for employers of all sizes to take on apprentices – from securing quality candidates to developing the frameworks that truly add value to businesses. Our work with ATG is an excellent example of this in action.”