Contents and links:

  1. About the training programme

  2. Inside Ford Engineering

  3. Local supply chain cooperation

  4. Ford's personal crusade


A few years ago, finding it a challenge to recruit suitable candidates for apprenticeships, Geoff Ford MBE of Ford Engineering Group took action.

The problem was that young people were not work-ready, he recalls. Now into his fifth decade with the company and today chairman of the South Shields-based operation, he explains the situation these candidates faced: “By the time they left school they were probably top dog, but then they become bottom dog in the real world. They don’t understand that, and they don’t understand what we as employers are looking for, and it’s basic stuff.”

To help bridge the gap between the end of school and the beginning of work in, for example, an apprenticeship, he devised the Ford Engineering Academy. This accepted its first class of 12 in autumn 2013 and has run four times since. A six-month programme of classroom study in English and Maths, vocational and life skills, and practical workshop training at South Tyneside College, known in the industry as a ‘traineeship’, offers 16-to-24-year-olds a Performing Engineering Operations qualification to NVQ Level 2 (GCSE equivalent). A big part of the programme is the six-week unpaid work placement at a local engineering company to provide real life work experience. (“The six weeks is enough to weigh up the calibre of the work placement candidate, and vice versa,” Ford quips). No further position, apprenticeship or otherwise, is guaranteed; the only promise is a job interview. However, all of the graduates of the five classes that have run are now in apprenticeships or employment.

Geoff Ford is involved with many organisations and initiatives in the north east, getting the manufacturing message across at various levels

Says Ford: “Traineeships are poorly marketed and misunderstood, but they are a stepping stone to employment.” And interest in the Ford Engineering Academy is growing; applicant numbers have doubled in two years to 65 at the last intake in September 2015, without the help of advertising: “It seems to be catching on,” judges the chairman.

And changes are afoot in the academy to build on this success. Earlier in the year, the training provider contract was retendered and, last month, Gateshead College (0191 490 2246) won out of a pool of three other bidders. Also, the entire course, both theory and practical elements, is likely to move to Ford Aerospace in Tyne Dock. After establishing a North Shields business three years ago, the company shifted production machinery to that site, emptying several of its existing buildings into which the academy will now move. When the academy, paused for the changes, restarts in September 2017, Ford Aerospace will provide buildings and pay electricity costs; government grants will cover tuition expenses.

Chloe Kingsland (left), engineering apprentice, and quality apprentice Liam Shields get to grips with high-tech equipment

One building will be converted into a workshop that will host some 10 manual lathes and mills. An adjacent building will become a two-storey training centre: downstairs is a 30-seat classroom and upstairs holds more classroom space, as well as a bank of the four CNC simulators previously provided to the academy by machine manufacturer Haas Automation (01603 760539). In fact, when it is not being used by local students, Haas may use the facility to train customers from Scotland and northern England who would rather not travel to its main training centre in Banbury. (A two-day training course on a simulator is included in the purchase price of a new machine.) Another industrial partner is distributor Cromwell Tools (0116 288 8000), which offered the academy a free vending machine for workshop supplies – though Ford pays for the tooling and personal protective equipment (PPE) that it contains and dispenses.

Although a classroom training centre was opened within Ford 15 years ago, this new facility provides a practical element to on-site training for the first time, engendering a practical, rather than theoretical, approach to tackling manufacturing problems, according to Ford.

And there are other benefits, he says: “We find that doing it all in a live engineering environment makes all the difference to these young people, because they don’t feel they are at school.” And although they may even make a real part on production equipment, he adds: “What we are not prepared to do is make it cheap labour.”


A paternalistic management style is a defining characteristic of family-owned businesses such as the 106-year old company started by Ford’s grandfather, he offers. For example, every quarter, management meets employees in small groups to go over company performance; when business has gone well, a profit sharing agreement pays the same amount to each employee; and the firm offers staff time off to speak with health visitors as part of the Better Health at Work programme (

Academy students on work experience (and fully-fledged three-year apprentices at the company) split their time at each of the three Ford businesses – Aerospace, Components and Laminated Products. Ford Aerospace performs Airbus A320 undercarriage component machining (aircraft production recently increased from 45 to 62 per month) plus safety-critical gearbox parts for helicopter manufacturer Agusta Westland, among other contracts. Recent machines include a Piranha PJCM 1325-5 CNC router (Radecal Machine Sales, 0191 417 6285) and a Haas VF 2TR 5-axis milling machine, and, for parts measurement,
a Mitutoyo (01264 353123) Microcord 574 CNC CMM.

Ford Laminated Products makes laminated shimstock, a product made of layered metal foils two thou’ (0.05 mm) thick and stuck together with special adhesive cured by heat treatment to form varying thicknesses. Called Easipeel, it can be cut into part shapes whose thickness can be reduced by peeling off layers of material to offer dimensional compensation.

Ford Components, the other group company in North Tyneside that freed up space for the academy, performs high volume presswork for automotive Tier 1 supplier Freudenberg Technical Products next door that can range up to 1 million components a week. (Ford Components is currently aiming for accreditation to automotive quality management standard ISO/TS16949 later this year , which is hoped will open doors at Nissan subcontractors and JLR.) A second components site performs light pressing and CNC punch press and laser cutting work, primarily for yellow goods customers Caterpillar, JCB and Komatsu, from a Hebburn, Tyne and Wear base. (A robotic system to produce edge-bonded shims for Caterpillar is planned to replace a highly labour-intensive fabrication process later this year.)

Spanning multiple industries and processes, Ford Engineering Group operations are nearly as diverse as is industry in the north east. And indeed, with the academy, Geoff Ford has his eyes focused outward,
as he explains: “The Ford Academy is not just for Ford.”

This is only partly because the company is simply not big enough to be able to take on the full cohort of young people trained (it took on three apprentices in the first course, but only one from this past year’s group). It is also about developing industry in the north east. He says that there should be an engineering academy in every borough of the north east, driven by the private sector, but so far his seems to be the only one.

Lewis Morgan (left), engineering apprentice, with Karl Dambers, manufacturing engineer, is seeing things in the virtual and real worlds


Still, a number north east companies continue to support the Ford Engineering Academy, including Quick Hydraulics, battery manufacturer Cell Pack Solutions, Washington Metalworks and remotely-operated vehicle manufacturer SMD, as well as Ford, of course. And in exchange for their participation in offering work placements, supporting companies win the right to have a say in the academy’s curriculum, highlights Ford.

For its part, participating firm Quick Hydraulics has hosted two academy students on work experiences: one has become an apprentice, the other might well have been had market conditions been more favourable.

Managing director Andrew Esson says: “What we have found useful is that it is quite a good means to bring someone in and try them out to get a bit of experience.” That has helped the business, a company of 20 that would ideally like to bring in an apprentice every year,
as well as the individual student, who is treated like a fully-fledged apprentice and set to work on the shopfloor.

Esson continues: “We’re a specialist hydraulic engineering business, so we always have pieces of hydraulic equipment that we are taking apart, servicing and putting back together again. This gives them [academy students] a chance to get their hands on real engineering components that belong to someone, that have a value and a need to be operating.” He adds that even if they don’t carry on with Quick Hydraulics, this experience is priceless when they come to apply for apprenticeships.


Just as the experiences offered by the participating businesses vary, so too do the types of careers offered by the engineering and manufacturing industries. Says Ford says: “I’ve worked for 42 years in manufacturing, but I’m not an engineer; I’m an accountant. Then you’ve got a vast range of careers: sales, purchasing, supply chain, quality, finance and IT; the list is endless. But engineers will name their price in a very few years, because there is such a shortage.”

Despite this wealth of opportunity, there is a poor general awareness of the importance of manufacturing, he says, even in a region with a strong legacy of heavy industry in coal mining and shipbuilding, and that translates into few applicants for apprenticeships. “My view is that manufacturing creates the original wealth that drives any society or economy. A service economy can’t service itself. It [manufacturing] starts the wheel spinning. But young people don’t appreciate that,” opines the chairman.

In preparing them for the world of work in engineering, Ford summarises the goals and work of the academy in a three-letter acronym: ASK. Ford says that ‘A’ is for attitude – being on time, looking smart, making an effort, asking questions. “That’s their job. The ‘S’, skills, and ‘K’, knowledge, we will provide,” he explains.


By way of illustration, Ford points out that the first academy class started with 12 students, but only 11 graduated after one student was removed from the programme. The chairman explains: “He was asked to leave because of his attitude. He interviewed well, but after a few weeks he began turning up late and started arguing with his lecturers. So the college said, ‘right, off you go, you’re no good for us’. Don’t know what happened to him; I hope it was a lesson to him. But it was an object lesson to the remaining 11.”

Two years ago, after 40 years running the business, Ford handed over the reins to his younger son Chris, also an accountant by training. Now, when he is not running the academy, the elder Ford visits nearby schools, promoting careers in manufacturing and engineering as a STEM ambassador. He also sits on the regional board of manufacturers’ group EEF, participates in the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, is chairman of the South Tyneside Workplace Health Alliance, supports apprenticeships in the skills group of the North East Automotive Alliance, and remains active in the Advanced Manufacturing Forum that he helped set up in 2006.

A native of South Shields, Ford says his actions are driven by a desire to give something back to his community, one that suffers from relatively high youth unemployment.

At the recent Manufacturing and Engineering North East conference, he said: “I’m passionately proud of being a sanddancer [person from South Shields] and I really do believe that the north east is capable of anything. We just have to realise it, believe it, and not tell people but show them.”

He also said: “Can the north east be the industrial heartbeat of the UK? I believe we can. We have some real world-class operations. We have the capability; it remains to be seen whether we have the will.”

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of Machinery magazine.

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