The in-house training of apprentices in the UK is typically the domain of large OEMs who have the financial support to provide the necessary infrastructure. However, High-Tech Engineering is setting an example to small and medium sized businesses through its commitment to apprentice training.
Steve Tickner, High-Tech Engineering's managing director, is determined to protect his business from the chronic skills shortage here in the UK. He is committed to training all of the skilled employees that the Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire-based precision sub-contractor could need. However, what makes this strategy more interesting is the fact that of the 28 employees of High-Tech Engineering, 11 are apprentices. "We had to ensure a continuous flow of multi skilled employees to secure the future of the business," says Mr Tickner, "and the only way we could see of achieving that is to train them ourselves."
Although the company's aim within the next four years is for every employee to have been through the company's Training Academy, Mr Tickner acknowledges that not every student will be able to benefit from a job at High Tech Engineering at the end of their five-year apprenticeship. However, the training that they are receiving is working in their favour and is being recognised by local education departments, businesses and the sector skills council Semta* in Bedfordshire.
Image: Once apprentices graduate to the machine shop, they will be in familiar territory, due to the company's SC21 accreditation and manufacturing systems, which are mirrored in the Training Academy
For example, when one trainee left to take up a position at a Formula One team, High-Tech were extremely pleased to receive a letter from the senior manufacturing manager outlining the high quality of training they had provided. It also gave a glowing commendation of the High-Tech Engineering initiative and refers to the possibility of the company becoming a future training partner for the team.
Every High-Tech Engineering apprentice is presented with a traditional Indenture Certificate when they complete their training, although the company accepts that this on its own could be viewed as worthless in the open job market. However, the managing director also provides apprentices with a portfolio that details their experience, highlighting the machine tools they have worked on, the CADCAM systems they are familiar with, and other relevant information of value to both to the apprentice and potential employers.
The Training Academy is an extremely serious aspect of the company's business plan, costing about £90 000 per year to run, and represents a significant investment for a family-run concern. As any other business investment, a return, in the form of is a steady stream of locally based multi-skilled engineers, is expected. A dedicated room in the Training Academy contains a Haas CNC machining centre and CNC lathe. Upstairs is a classroom environment where apprentices do theoretical work, as well as learning the intricacies of programming using two CNC control simulators that mirror the controls on the machine tools downstairs.
The investment also includes the appointment of John Chopping as the Academy's Training Instructor. An ex-NVQ assessor from Aylesbury Training College, he has worked alongside Mr Tickner to create a training program that is tailored to produce highly skilled CNC machinists required for the company's expansion plans. This also dovetails perfectly with the company's overall quality and operational standards, and active participation on the Aerospace SC21 ( Supply Chain 21st Century) Improvement Programme. Mr Tickner is extremely proud that High-Tech Engineering is the first precision engineering company to receive a Bronze SC21 award, in September 2008.
SC21 and the Training Academy are all part of the bigger picture for High-Tech Engineering, which has recognised that it has to constantly develop and improve, and that the encouragement of new recruits and development of skills is crucial to that strategy.
Image: Apprentices work on real jobs, learning immediately that what they do matters and has an impact
Unlike traditional training centres, High-Tech Engineering takes a very practical approach. Following initial training, apprentices become part of the day-to-day production environment - an approach that the company's managing director sees as having numerous advantages. "Once we are certain apprentices are confident in their own abilities, I see very little sense in continuing to present them with meaningless training tasks to complete. For example, rather than have them producing test pieces as a gauge of their ability, we identify simple production parts on longer lead times for them to produce under our normal manufacturing procedures. This way, they understand the need to produce components correct to drawing, with all the associated inspection checks, etc, that are essential for manufacture." They realise the importance of what they are being asked to do, a genuine work ethic is also instilled in them and, with the correct supervision in place, they contribute directly to the cost of their training.
Image: Two dedicated CNC simulators ensure that apprentices are fully conversant with machine control systems, before they begin to cut metal
Because of some of the challenging materials being cut at High-Tech Engineering, the Academy also has the advantage of being able to call on the extensive knowledge of its suppliers, such as cutting tool specialist WNT (UK).
A case in point is Duncan Slough, the local technical sales engineer for WNT (UK), who has a very close working relationship with High-Tech Engineering. He is frequently found on the shopfloor, offering the benefit of his extensive cutting tool knowledge, particularly with regard to the aerospace materials that are a common feature of the components being machined . This knowledge is cascaded into the Academy and is of real benefit to apprentices, as they become involved with the latest cutting tools and techniques.
Having started the Training Academy to develop highly skilled CNC machinists specifically for its own purpose, High-Tech Engineering has now ,with the help of Semta* and awarding body EAL** , been approved to deliver NVQs, which is a reflection of the quality of the training being delivered. This excellent training record was also highlighted to local MP Andrew Selous, who has been instrumental in involving the local authority, along with the Learning and Skills Council, in inviting High-Tech Engineering to become part of a consortium bidding to deliver the new Engineering Diploma for 14-to-19-year-old students in Bedfordshire.
"The Engineering Diploma is the best thing I have heard of in a long time," enthuses Mr Tickner. "For us it can identify students who, at the age of 14, show an particular interest in the subject. More importantly, the Diploma will enable us to identify young people who are genuinely interested in engineering as a career. In return we are able to give them the training that they need to succeed and provide a direct route into full-time employment, which is fantastic."
The Engineering Diploma system will contrast with the current situation at High-Tech where the initial drop out rate can be relatively high, as Students begin to fully understand their career choice . "We are really encouraged by what is happening with the Diploma system and are pleased to be in at the early stages," Mr Tickner adds. "Our plans include a possible 3000 ft2 extension to the Training Academy, which we will achieve with the support of suppliers such as WNT (UK).
* Semta is the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies. Semta supports UK businesses in achieving global competitiveness through investment in skills. www.semta.org.uk
**EAL is the UK's leading awarding body for engineering, technology and related sectors offering the widest range of vocational qualifications for the industry www.eal.org.uk
Established in 1985, High-Tech Engineering operates from a purpose-build facility utilising advanced technology to cost-effectively produce quality precision components in a variety of materials. The company is committed to in-house training and has operated an engineering training scheme since 1994. Having seen the benefits of this training, a designated engineering academy was opened in September 2006 to ensure a steady flow of well-trained, multi-skilled staff.
The academy has been recognised by both the Gauge and Toolmakers' Association (GTMA) and the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium (FAC), who are encouraged by the commitment to training new engineers. In recognition of this ongoing training High-Tech Engineering received an award for Engineering Excellence in April 2006 from the GTMA.
The company is now focusing on expansion and is already involved in Strategic Supply with several customers on the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC) SC21 program.
Also, to further enhance on its manufacturing skills, High-Tech is now offering an assembly service, which is within the scope of its AS9100 accreditation.
First published in Engineering Apprentice, Winter 2008