Apprentice school investment

5 mins read

A 250-employee sheet metal sub-contractor has built its own apprentice training facility and has employed its own teaching staff in support of maintaining its competitive position

A self-funded, £600,000 investment in dedicated apprentice and employee training facilities has been opened by Newcastle under Lyme-based KMF, a 250-employee precision sheet metalworking business.

Image: KMF's training school - a £600,000 investment

Among the guests attending on Friday, 20 November - which included the company's key customers, manufacturing technology suppliers (Trumpf, Amada), other key suppliers, plus apprentices - was guest of honour Richard Noble, OBE – the man behind the current attempt to drive at over 1,000 mph on land and who headed up the successful Thrust SSC land speed record attempt on October 15, 1997, achieving a speed of 763 mph.

Image: Richard Noble, left, congratulates Michael Higgins

KMF managing director Gareth Higgins, who is the son of co-founder Michael Higgins, also in attendance, opened proceedings, saying that the move is not philanthropy but an investment and an initiative that is essential for the company's continued success. "The importance of this training centre cannot be understated – we are in a critical phase in our company's development. That is why we are holding this event today.

"We want to be a long term partner for our customers and suppliers; not just for two or three years but for 20 years; still doing what we are doing now, using latest technology [see box item], investing and being successful."

The company's products take in electrical cabinets, rack systems, dispensing equipment, scientific equipment (mass spectrometers) and, latterly, aircraft seat components, while some, such as mass spectrometers, are not just empty chassis but full assemblies. Simple parts to in-house turn key solutions demand, it was said, a marriage between the best people, latest technology and robust systems of work for the company that at any one time has around 100 active customers.

Referring to the apprentices in the audience, Higgins told the gathering that they had made the decision to invest in the KMF Training Centre easy. "The calibre of these people made it a very simple decision to invest in this centre." But he also highlighted that the company will lose some 20 employees in the next five years, due to retirement, and that their capabilities had to be replaced.

The company has take on apprentices for over 12 years – already more than 20 of the workforce have come through this route - although a more formalised approach was taken in 2001. In 2006, the company moved to using its own in-house staff to deliver training and subsequently adopted a national, recognised framework (via EAL, the leading awarding body for engineering vocational qualifications, see Engineering Apprentice, Autumn 2009, page 12) – "which KMF will take further," business improvement manager, Keith Nicholl explained, referring to the wish to be able deliver additional academic education in-house, as well as develop in-house training for other employees through NVQs and the development of company-specific qualifications through EAL.

A key member of the in-house teaching staff is John Booth, who had been working alongside KMF as the NVQ assessor at Stoke-on-Trent College. When the College wanted to move John away from that role, KMF offered him a part-time position helping with their apprentices, a role which grew into a full-time position as training moved in-house. The company highlights that is was Booth's determination and enthusiasm that resulted in the plans being laid for the development of the new training centre. He has also had responsibility for training three new assessors and mentors who will be responsible for apprentice training at KMF.

Image: L to R: Mark Haig (EAL External Verifier); Joe Cowen (3rd year apprentice), Matt Page (2nd year apprentice) and Joe Pemberton (1st year apprentice)

Recent practice has seen four apprentices taken on each year, and that is the intention going into the future, too. The apprentice programme is of four years duration, with successful completion of years 1 and 2 resulting in the acquisition of an NVQ and VRQ technical certificate at level 2; successful completion of years 3 and 4, Advanced Apprenticeship, see NVQ and VRQ level 3 qualifications won. Year 4 also sees apprentices undertake a CAD training course.

Apprentices move through the factory, according to a structured programme, acquiring practical skills and reinforcing theoretical knowledge as they go. They also learn about people and organisation, production systems, quality systems, and business improvement methods.

Complementing the in-house practical and vocational training, apprentices may, following successful completion, attend a local college to gain HNC and HND academic qualifications, but it is also intended that delivery of this element will also be brought in-house, following the recent employment of Tom Binckley, most recently higher education manager for South Cheshire College – discussions with EAL have already commenced on this subject.

"Following the completion of an apprenticeship, progress within KMF is uncapped," Nicholl stressed, highlighting that Peter Krynicki, who won the 2007 Metals Industry Apprentice of the Year award, presented by Metskill, is now a full-time bending technician, responsible for prototyping and programming advanced bending machines, while he is also a mentor and assessor to the current intake of apprentices.

Another apprentice, Stefan Rduch is part of the purchasing team and controls a spend of more then £3.5 million. Rduch has also taken up the company's offer of further training, completing both HNC and HND mechanical engineering courses, and he is now also well on the way towards completing his academic qualification for the Chartered Institute of Purchase and Supply, at Derby University.

"KMF's training centre is staffed by qualified teachers who understand both the learning process and the company's business drivers," says Nicholl. "Using our own team, with a pedigree that is tried tested and trusted, gives us a great deal of confidence, and ultimately results in highly competent young people who, significantly, achieve scores above those of their peer groups.

"The backing and structure of EAL ensures that the learning, as well as being relevant to KMF, is underpinned by national guidelines.

"Using this approach has delivered fantastic results. Our current year 2 apprentices are applying their newly applied skills in engineering planning, sales and the core competence of manufacturing. Year 3 apprentices are putting together presentations that challenge some of our accepted best practice, and have the confidence and skills to effect real business change."

And the KMF facility and its benefits are likely to be opened up to support the apprentice training needs of other local companies, offers Higgins, although not, understandably, competitors, since KMF's apprentices are key component of the company's competitiveness.

Box item 1

Modern factory

KMF employs advanced, automated technology in production. Indeed, the company can have as little as a 3-day visibility of customer requirements. Automated manufacturing processes, managed and scheduled by Radan E2I manufacturing software, supports such flexibility and response. The company shopfloor runs 24 hours/day, seven days a week.

KMF's punching facility comprises three Trumpf 5000 punch presses, a Trumpf 6000 combination laser and punch, and a TruPunch 5000 punch press. Efficiency on all but one Trumpf 5000 has been increased by automating these machines. The automated components within the cell enable a 60 per cent increase in efficiencies, compared to a conventional manual punching machine system.

KMF has two Amada Astro 100NT robot automated press brakes for automated bending and it has a Salvagnini P4 automated panel bender.

The company has recently upgraded its painting facility and is increasingly undertaking assembly on behalf of its customers.

Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement support its operations.

Box item 2

Staffing the Training Centre

The Centre is managed by Jenny Conlon, who has been with KMF for seven years, health and safety manager, holding the parallel role of training centre coordinator and human resources management.

She is responsible for the managing of all health and safety principles and practices within the business, along with a team of health and safety representatives. She is also responsible for all employees in relation to human resources, and co-ordinating all apprenticeship training programs along with a team of apprentice lecturers. She has numerous relevant qualifications and diplomas.

Tom Binkley spent 19 years in heavy engineering/manufacturing, having taken an indentured apprenticeship with British rail, becoming project engineering manager for coded pressure vessels (petro-chem). He has subsequently spent 27 years in education, starting as a mechanical engineering lecturer, rising to head of engineering and motor vehicle, then to higher education manager for South Cheshire College. Apart from technical, vocational and educational qualifications, he holds a Bachelor of Science Degree with Commendation (2:2 Hons eq) Computer Science and Ceramic Technology.

John Booth spent 12 years in heavy engineering/manufacturing, having taken an indentured apprenticeship with British rail, becoming production controller with Copestick and Farrell, Fenton, S-O-T.

He then spent 28 years in education, starting as a fabrication and welding lecturer, rising to programme manager with Stoke on Trent Technical College.

The final member of the Training Centre team is Colin Brunt, who spent11 years in heavy engineering/manufacturing, taking an indentured apprenticeship with British Rail, becoming plant layout draughtsman for Simon Hartley Engineers Ltd, Stoke on Trent.

He has spent 22 years in education as a mechanical/production engineering lecturer.

First published in Engineering Apprentice, Winter 2009