Workforce and skills: It’s good to share

Imagine a company divided from its sector hub, manufacturing a product in an area with few peers, in an industry largely perceived to be in national decline – yet determined to forge a future for itself through reviving investment in technology and skills.

Such was the case at Fox Brothers & Co just three years ago before a change in management breathed new life into the two hundred and fifty year old manufacturer of woollen and worsted fabrics.

A not inconsiderable influence in the company’s revival has come thanks to investment from Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden, now a Made in Great Britain Champion and joint owner of Fox Brothers. She saw potential in the SME and was moved by a fear that Britain would lose traditional capabilities in industries such as weaving if companies like Fox Brothers were allowed to go to the wall. She, and company management, were keen to reanimate investment in apprenticeships to ward off this danger.

“The way [the apprenticeship scheme] has evolved has really cemented the relationship between our two companies and improved knowledge on both sides about the process map from yarn to finished product” – Sarah Hicks, Operations Director, Fox Brothers

But despite its long heritage, Somerset-based Fox Brothers is not located in an area well recognised for textiles – and it therefore sits in something of a weaving skills hinterland where none of the local colleges supply specialist courses.

To add to the challenge, management at Fox Brothers desired something more from their training investment than technical weaving skills. They wanted a scheme which would develop individuals with forward thinking and creative business skills who could help the company face industry challenges in the future.

It seems an incompatible set of requirements. But through luck and hard work Fox Brothers has created a scheme which overcomes its disadvantages and is proving highly valuable to the business. The key in the equation has been to partner for delivery of the scheme with its customer, British fashion and lifestyle brand, Jack Wills.

Outside the box

Conventional thinking around apprenticeship frameworks includes day release for training at a local college as a standard feature. But Fox Brothers, relatively isolated from much FE provision, and certainly a long way from its sector hub in Yorkshire, needed to find a different solution for the non-workplace aspect of its apprenticeship scheme.

Luckily, Ms Hicks was aware of Yeovil College from a previous role. “It’s an innovative and flexible provider,” says Ms Hicks. “Instead of our apprentice having to travel a significant distance on the unreliable public transport system we have here in the South West, they agreed to come here weekly and deliver all of his training on-site.”

In addition, although Yeovil College had no standard training package for the weaving industry, they were able to take the structure of the well known Performing Manufacturing Operations NVQ and tailor it to Fox Brothers’ requirements.

Because of the bespoke nature of the scheme, and because the selected apprenticeship candidate was a post-graduate student, there was very little funding available to support this relatively expensive training structure.

But again collaboration with Jack Wills helped make ends meet. “Yeovil College found us what subsidy they could and then Jack Wills and Fox Brothers paid fifty per cent each,” explains Ms Hicks. Overall the training – spread over one year – cost £1000.

“We would have gone ahead with training Rob [Kennedy] even if we had not been partnering with Jack Wills on this programme,” continues Ms Hicks. “He was such a high calibre candidate that we would have wanted to retain him. But the help from Jack Wills meant we were able to take on three apprentices last year. Rob and two others on the scheme we run independently.”

Robert Kennedy is the first employee at Fox Brothers to emerge from its shared apprenticeship scheme with Jack Wills.

Collaboration

With the decline of textiles manufacturing in the UK Jack Wills had become increasingly interested in the production processes at its British suppliers says Sarah Hicks, operations director at Fox Brothers. “Just over eighteen months ago they approached us with an idea for sharing an apprenticeship scheme. The way it has evolved has really cemented the relationship between our two companies and improved knowledge on both sides about the process map from yarn to finished product,” she comments.

This mutual will to understand and improve the supply relationship between Fox Brothers and Jack Wills has been a driving force behind the shared apprenticeship scheme – which has just produced its first fully fledged employee: Robert Kennedy.

Under the shared structure the apprentice is officially registered as an employee at Fox Brothers where the majority of the training takes place (see box). However, while he sits on the Fox Brothers pay roll, Jack Wills supports the cost of employment.

Helena Feltham, HR Director at Jack Wills explains why the arrangement works for them. “It is important that we continue to work with our suppliers so that we understand how they operate and this scheme offers the chance to support knowledge sharing as part of Rob’s development.”

Ms Feltham continues, “We are pleased that Rob has chosen to stay with Fox Brothers and we are delighted that the insight gained during his time with Jack Wills will enable him to work closely on our product lines there.”

In addition, part of Mr Kennedy’s apprenticeship included a project to find ways of improving aspects of the supply relationship and collaboration between Fox Brothers and Jack Wills. “We are now working with Fox Brothers to make sure that we continue to track the benefits of our investment in this exciting apprenticeship scheme,” says Ms Feltham.

The expectations of both parties involved in this shared scheme have had to be flexible and much has depended on Rob Kennedy’s own developing ambitions. Ms Hicks admits that this held something of a risk for Fox Brothers. “We were aware that our manufacturing environment was not as glamorous as that offered at Jack Wills – a top UK fashion brand,” she accedes. “There was a risk that when Rob went to them on secondment he would find it a more attractive career prospect. But that is just a risk that you have to take as a business. Our approach is always to make clear that our apprenticeships offer progression – a permanent role – if the trainee wants it.”

You are not alone

Finding that a local college or training provider does not provide the courses a single company needs for staff development is a common frustration – particularly for SME employers. But it is not a new frustration, nor one which has been left unaddressed.

In the 1960s GTAs – Group Training Associations were formed under the Industrial Training Act to support groups of employers who did not have the capacity to deliver skills training programmes by themselves.

Despite many alterations to the skills landscape, GTAs still exist today. There are 40 in England with over 10,000 employers supporting them. GTAs are strictly employerled and governed, not for profit organisations. The huge majority are dedicated to supporting the delivery of quality engineering training.

The Midland’s has a particularly strong representation of well established GTAs, including Training 2000 – England’s largest GTA – which recently helped establish a joint apprenticeship training scheme for Rolls-Royce and telecoms technology company TTG in Derby.

To find out about the work being done to spread understanding and of GTAs and grow the employer led network see our interview with GTA England CEO Mark Maudsley at www.themanufacturer.com.