Car parts manufacturer Unipres is tackling the challenge of an ageing workforce head on with the launch of its own training academy, as Bryce Wilcock reports.
A year on from the opening of the Unipres Training Academy in Washington, the company couldn’t be happier with how the centre has progressed. Working hand-in-hand with schools and colleges across the region, Unipres has helped train over 100 apprentices since opening the doors to the academy and is already seeing a return from its investment.
Housed within Washington Business Centre, the academy boasts its own simulated production line and gives budding apprentices and new recruits a feel for life on the line before they even step foot inside the factory.
“The academy is the culmination of a vision combined with a great deal of hard work and investment,” plant director John Cruddace says. “We have the best apprentices here, so it’s only fitting that they have the best facility possible in order to learn the ropes.
“All of the machines and equipment we have at the Unipres Training Academy are exactly the same as we use in the main plant, so the transition from training to the working environment is as smooth as possible.”
The decision to launch the training academy was born from the need for Unipres to increase both the number, and the quality of apprentices and staff it was able to attract and retain. Since launching 30 years ago, Unipres, like many other manufacturing businesses, has been built around its apprentices. In fact, Cruddace and managing director Gary Graham started out as apprentices before joining the company some 28 years ago and both have worked their way up from the shop floor to the top.
However, whilst this has led to the company building a highly skilled and loyal workforce, it has also brought with it a series of challenges. One of which, a key motivator in the establishing of the academy, was the prospect that the company would be set to lose many long serving, experienced staff through retirement.
Many of the company’s staff members, like Cruddace and Graham, have been with the company for decades and are now looking to retire, resulting in a looming brain drain. Cruddace says: “Up until recently, we have always promoted from within. All of our management team, myself included, have worked our way up. I started as a die technician 28 years ago and worked my way up to become a director. Most of our management staff share similar stories.
“It works. However, when we started succession planning in 2014, we noticed there were holes and we didn’t have the people coming through who could fill them. With this in mind, we went out and recruited a number of supervisors and senior supervisors for the first time.
“But now, thanks to the academy, there is a structure in place to create the next generation of team leaders and supervisors from within. It’s going to be a long process, but it’ll be worth it.”
Maureen Askew, senior controller at the Unipres Training Academy, echoed Cruddace’s views. She adds: “As a company, we’ve employed almost 300 apprentices since 1989, and apprenticeship positions continue to grow throughout the business with many other departments such as human resources, finance, quality and procurement now also investing in apprenticeship positions.
“The industry continues to face a skills shortage and it is essential that businesses, like ourselves, continue to invest in training for new employees and the existing workforce. We have invested over £500,000 in the training academy with industry specialist equipment to not only train our apprentices to the best possible standard but also to enhance the skills of our staff.”
Helping ensure the company is able to provide the best possible training is Hartlepool College. Askew, who is also a member of the North East Apprentice Ambassador Network, played a key role in establishing the academy and decided to go to tender in order to find the right training provider for this year’s cohort of apprentices.
She adds: “Our recruitment process for our current first-year apprentices commenced in January as normal, but the introduction of levy and our new engineering technician apprenticeship, made us approach selecting our training provider differently and we decided to go to tender.
“This was a major step change for us but a very interesting process which highlighted Hartlepool College as the strongest provider. They offered an outstanding delivery model and value for money.”
The apprenticeship levy, which came into force in April last year, meant that companies with a pay as you earn (PAYE) bill of £3m or more must pay a levy of 0.5%. “Calculating our levy contribution was challenging to ensure we used the funds effectively,” Askew adds, “but we feel we have done this successfully and working with providers like Hartlepool College allows us to invest in apprenticeship positions in other areas of the business.”
As well as being able to train up to 100 apprentices a year, the academy also helps Unipres carry on its proud tradition of upskilling existing staff members and promoting from within.
From basic training to level three qualifications, Unipres hopes to give staff of all levels the opportunity to progress their careers through the academy and gain qualifications which could help accelerate their careers, something Cruddace and Askew believe is key to creating a strong workforce.
Cruddace adds: “With Maureen and the academy, we’re now branching it out to everybody. Everyone within the organisation will be given the chance to progress.
“Whether they take that opportunity or not will be up to them, we won’t force them to go down this route, but the opportunity will be there for them. You could come in as a temporary worker, win a permanent contract and go on to become managing director, that’s the vision.”
Since its launch, the academy has already helped recruit and train over 100 apprentices and upskill dozens of staff members through its innovative training programmes and it doesn’t stop there. Unipres has already had to expand the academy, taking up an extra floor at the business centre, and Cruddace and Askew believe the company has already seen a return on its investment.
“In one year, we’re reaping the benefits,” Cruddace says. “It has been a tough year, a year when we’ve had to develop both internally and externally. But those partnerships are now strong and in 12 months’ time, who knows how much further it will go.
“We’ve taken on an extra unit for our warehousing and material handling training and have extended our office space there with the aim of opening a mini ICT suite. It used to be a case of Unipres looking for the right people, now the right people are looking for Unipres.”