Why training has been our best investment

It’s a world-class manufacturer in the West Midlands. Each one of its 185 employees receive, on average, 200 hours of training each year. Tony Hague, managing director of Power Panel Electrical Systems on the importance of training, apprenticeships and why every company should “do its bit” to engage with schools.

“When a manufacturer invests in automation, it must also invest in people.  People can make a massive difference, even in a highly automated plant; they operate machinery, not the other way around. It is easy to focus on the return on investment from equipment but that’s only a part of the story. You need to create a culture in which people can innovate.

“We started our in-house training academy 12 years ago. Over that time, we have made lots of mistakes but we have kept going. And our training academy has paid off more than any piece of equipment.

“ That’s quite considerable. They learn technical skills and process skills, both in the classroom and on the job. You have to reinforce the theory with the practice.

“We have a structured training roadmap: there’s a foundation course for everyone, irrespective of their department. So if you aspire to succeed here, you know what you will need to do.

“We don’t use many external consultants; I think that to do it right for us, we have to design the training internally. And it has to be continuous – you can’t stop.

“We did create a business teaching other companies, off the back of our training success. But although training other companies does generate extra revenue, we prefer to focus our efforts internally. If we achieve one half of one per cent improvement in this business, that will eclipse any fees that we can earn from other companies.

“The single biggest catalyst of change in PP has been our investment in our training school. Cultural change doesn’t happen quickly or easily; without the training school, we wouldn’t have the culture we have right now.

“It’s about giving people knowledge, confidence and skills – and then making sure they get out there and make a difference with them!

Engaging with education

“I spend a considerable amount of time, talking to teachers and head teachers and persuading them that engineering is an exciting discipline. It’s not that schools deliberately do manufacturing down ; it is just that they don’t really know much about it. They are part of the problem – but they need help.

“We have worked hard at engaging with local schools and that has started to pay dividends. We have a number of apprentices from Walsall College. We also run placements for students at Aston University and we have some interns from Warwick Manufacturing Group. There are plenty of people in their late teens and early twenties in our workforce.

“There’s no point sitting and moaning. The schools are receptive, so every business has to do its bit to engage with them.

“You don’t need a Government strategy to get off your backside and visit your local school. In your own area, in your own way, do something. One year, we spent £40,000 to buy a school their own CAD/CAM machine because their kit was so outdated they were going to drop some courses. Now some of those students work here at PP.

“A few years ago, you could hear plenty of scepticism about apprentices. There’s not so much now. But apprenticeships have to be taken seriously.

“People ask me: what if you train people and then they leave? My reply is: what if you don’t train people and they stay?

“If you train people and they are good, and you provide an environment in which they can grow, why would they want to leave? It is a risk you have to take. If you do the right thing with individuals and let people develop – in stature, knowledge, income, security, prospects – why would they want to leave?”

You can find out much more about finding and hiring apprentices, as well as the employment grants that are available at apprenticeships.org.uk. You can call the National Apprenticeship Service on 0800 150 600. 

Contact UK Comission for Emplyment and Skills (UKCES) for guidance on skills and employment issues.