Focusing on a brighter future

Focusing on a brighter future

Geoff Ford has been an untiring champion of preparing young people to work in manufacturing. He now sees light at the end of the tunnel, as he explains to Peter Jackson.

Geoff Ford was a voice crying in the wilderness for years before the value of engineering and manufacturing was rediscovered. The chairman of the 105-year-old South Shields family specialist engineering business Ford – comprising Ford Aerospace and Ford Components – was advocating STEM long before the acronym was coined.

Now that many of the ideas he has long been advocating have become mainstream, he is still tireless in working to popularise manufacturing and engineering as a career and in ensuring that young people have the necessary training and qualifications.

Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to business education has been the Ford Engineering Academy. The academy, which provides basic engineering skills in a six-month programme was set up in 2013 by Ford in partnership with South Tyneside College.

It aims to give 16 to 24-year-olds the initial training needed to gain jobs in a sector that is suffering a national skills shortage. Training is run at Ford Aerospace’s factory site at Tyne Dock, South Shields by South Tyneside College, whose engineering lecturers oversee the programme which is made up of 12 learning modules, including milling, hand fitting, welding and lathe work.

As well as Ford, other North East firms which support the academy by providing work experience placements are Cellpack Solutions, Essentra, Washington Metalworks, Quick Hydraulics and Soil Machine Dynamics. Additional support for the academy comes from two of Ford Aerospace’s suppliers, HAAS and Cromwell, which provide equipment used by the trainees as part of their learning.

At the end of their work experience, each trainee is guaranteed an interview for employment with their respective company for a full-time apprenticeship or job opportunity. Another option is to take a Level 3 college apprenticeship.

Ford explains that three core principles which inform the academy are contained in the acronym ASK, which stands for: attitude, skills and knowledge. “Ford Aerospace provides the skill, South Tyneside College provides the knowledge and the young people must demonstrate that they have the right attitude and understand the needs of the world of work. That’s what traineeship provides – work readiness.’’

A third group of 12 students has just completed a course and a fourth group, which is likely to be 15 or 20 strong, is due to start in September. Ford explains: “The college always wanted to start small and focus on quality rather than quantity but we’ve had three groups now and we are getting more ideas how to run it and we can cope with more.’’

But, still learning or not, he proudly points to the fact that everyone who came through the academy is now in full time employment and he is confident that this will be the case with the third group. In fact, Ford is taking on one 17-year-old female from that group.

“Young ladies do well in STEM subjects at GCSE and then change direction because their perception is that STEM subjects at A-Level are too difficult,’’ he says. “That is probably a misconception on their part. We are finding that young ladies are really adept at STEM subjects and are quite adept at engineering issues. At Ford, 25% of our entire workforce is female and we have no positive discrimination, everybody is here on their merit. We need more women in manufacturing.’’

Ford is also a STEM ambassador. STEM ambassadors – of whom there are more than 27,000 – are appointed by Stemnet, which works with thousands of schools, colleges and STEM employers to promote STEM subjects among young people. The ambassadors volunteer their time to promote STEM.

Ford explains how his ambassadorial duties recently led to him sending five female employees involved in HR, finance, supply chain, quality control and purchasing to St Wilfred’s RC College in South Shields.

“They spoke to young ladies aged 17 and 18 about why they work in engineering, what drove them to it, what qualifications they had and why they recommend it. That went extremely well.’’

This is supplemented by work with Primary Engineer, an organisation based in Burnley in Lancashire, which encourages young people to work in STEM related professions, helping primary schools to deliver practical maths, science and design technology activities.

The Ford companies are currently engaged in a Primary Engineer programme with Westoe Crown Primary School in South Shields, helping the pupils to design and manufacture mobile vehicles with two teams of two engineers – an apprentice and a time-served engineer – who go to the school each week to give advice, support and explanation.

“It works very well,’’ says Ford. “There are currently 88 primary schools in the North
East on this programme, but we could do with more.’’

Ford and his companies are also involved with the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, run by Engineering UK which is an employer supported careers information initiative, aimed primarily at secondary schools.

In the North East, Tomorrow’s Engineers is based in the EEF office. Ford sits on the EEF Skills Group and he is proud that the North East region of the EEF was the first to have a skills group. He also sits on the EEF Primary Engineer group to promote the programme to schools and employers throughout the North East.

He also works closely with Framwellgate School in Durham, which has its own STEM, enterprise and enrichment manager as a full time role. “She makes a tremendous difference to the young people at Framwellgate School,’’ he says.

Students from the school have been to the Ford companies on work placements to find out about engineering.

Ford also sits on the steering group for Career College North East, CCNE. This is one of just four career colleges in the UK and the first to specialise in advanced manufacturing, engineering and computer science.

It was set up by a partnership of South Tyneside College and St Wilfrid’s RC College and is based on the Government’s new national educational policy of allowing Further Education Colleges such as South Tyneside to recruit students at the age of 14.

As a career college, CCNE will combine academic and vocational studies with students following St Wilfrid’s core academic curriculum for four days a week and then undergoing skills education and preparation for the world of work during a fifth day at South Tyneside College.

Manufacturing and engineering have become popular again, but I put it to him that he must have been in despair at one about the way in which politicians seemed to regard them. “Yes, and I attribute it all to Margaret Thatcher,’’ he says.

“She just didn’t understand. Manufacturing creates the original wealth that drives any economy and any society. The service sector can’t service itself. Manufacturing in this country used to be 23% of our GDP; Germany’s is still 23%, ours is now 11% and the next government, of whatever persuasion, needs to determine that it goes up from 11% to get it back up there. It’ll be a different kind of manufacturing, it won’t be coal mining or steel but we can do it.’’

Is he optimistic? “I’m more optimistic than I was because people are starting to realise.’’

He is so optimistic that he is hoping to replicate the Ford Academy model elsewhere. He says: “I would love to see an engineering academy in every borough in the United Kingdom and I think it’s possible. You need a private sector organisation with some drive, a committed further education provider and fellow employers who will be supportive of the aspirations of an academy.

“I’m talking to Gateshead, Sunderland and North Tyneside as we speak – they being our three immediate neighbouring boroughs – about the possibility of setting up academies in their boroughs.’’

Some companies have expressed an interest, particularly in Gateshead. Ford would act as an adviser. “If I could help in any way I will,’’ he says. “The Ford model may not suit everybody but there are the guiding principles behind it, the aspiration and the determination, and if I could help people in those regards I would.’’

Why does he devote so much time and energy to encouraging young people to go into engineering and on equipping them for careers in the sector?

“I’ve been working in engineering for 41 years now and I just want to put something back. Ford has been going for 105 years and I’d like it to go for another 105 years but to do that we need an appropriate workforce for the future and that means focusing on young people, encouraging them, setting the right example. That’s why I do it – it’s for the future.’’