Apprentices doing a ‘stirling’ job

February 3, 2020

Investing in apprentices has allowed Sterling Pharma Solutions to boost productivity and sustainability. Here, Chris Wiper, learning and development manager at the Cramlington pharmaceutical business explains how partnering with Gateshead College is delivering real business benefits

Sterling was established over 50 years ago and we have 430 employees, many of whom have been with us for the whole of their working lives. One of the biggest challenges we face as a business is one that can be seen across our industry; we have a highly-skilled, very experienced workforce, but there’s a reduced number of students who are studying STEM subjects who could eventually enter businesses, like Sterling, as they graduate.

We’re incredibly proud of our loyal and capable workforce and we recognise that they have a lot to offer the younger generation who are interested in our sector but perhaps looking for some guidance. With this in mind, we began to think about how we could transfer this knowledge, experience and talent. How could we continue to provide the existing service to our customers across the globe, but also look at progressive ways to innovate and improve our products? This kick-started our apprenticeship programme and our commitment to sharing experience across the generations has ensured it has continued to grow over the last decade.

As a manufacturer, we understand the value apprenticeships can bring to our business. Our very first apprenticeships led to the creation of our ‘Future Engineers Programmes’ and these remain a vital tool today as we work to develop the next generation of skilled workers and give them opportunities to pursue careers in STEM disciplines.

As we’ve grown, we’ve gained first-hand experience of the benefits a successful apprenticeship can provide and our understanding of how these can have a benefit on business operations has continued to evolve. Today, we employ 36 apprentices across all 12 of our departments, including research and development, warehousing, manufacturing, IT and analytical sciences.

These young apprentices have really invigorated the business. We’ve seen our existing employees become motivated and passionate about training our younger workforce as they recognise opportunities to mentor them through their professional development.

From our apprentices, there’s a real drive to learn and succeed. Our staff retention remains high and our apprentices have boosted productivity across all divisions of the business.

We also benefit from our apprentices’ perspectives. For example, there have been a number of occasions where an apprentice has questioned a particular process we follow, asking why we do it in a specific way. They offer a fresh pair of eyes and, having grown up in a more technologically advanced era, can suggest new and more productive ways of working.

Crucially, apprenticeships enable us to future-proof our business. They’re the most sustainable and cost-effective way to succession plan and also allow us to nurture a committed and engaged workforce that knows our business and our customers inside out.

It’s important when developing an apprenticeship programme to ensure that it works for both your business and the new additions to your team. The critical aspect here was choosing a partner training provider that could offer a high level of advice and direction throughout each apprenticeship, at whatever stage.

The Gateshead College team have been so supportive, they’ve become an extension of us and, when we’ve needed to change something or adapt a specific programme, they’ve worked with us to ensure it is tailored to our business needs while fulfilling the apprentices’ learning requirements.

The college has been very flexible and their skills coach provision –where their specialist mentors visit our apprentices on a regular basis to see how they’re progressing – is excellent.

I realise the prospect of introducing apprenticeship schemes might sound daunting, but the invaluable opportunity it gives companies to unlock young new talent within the region and provide a fully equipped and skilled workforce far outweighs this.

My advice to any company looking to implement apprenticeship programmes within their business is to make sure they have the right structures in place to effectively deliver them. It’s also vital that they choose a high-quality training provider who can help them recruit suitable apprentices and support them through every stage of the programme.

Although business process changes might be required, the long-term benefits apprenticeships provide are multifold. For any business seeking longevity and continued growth, apprenticeships must form a key part of their recruitment and training approach. In my opinion, they’re the gateway to the skilled workers of the future that we, as businesses, crucially need.

Apprentice spotlight: Jessica Dobbie

Explain your apprenticeship role at Sterling; what do you do?

I’m a materials controller in the warehouse, studying a Supply Chain Level 3 Apprenticeship. My daily tasks include carrying out bulk storage tank and drum park capacity checks across 2225 different locations at our 42-acre site. I book raw material deliveries and liaise with our purchasing team, suppliers and delivery drivers. I also ensure that all documentation and materials are correct and comply with regulations.

Why did you want to become an apprentice?

I originally started a degree course at university but quickly realised that the style of learning wasn’t for me. An apprenticeship stood out as the right option for me. It has allowed me to gain hands-on learning while earning a wage and I don’t think you can get better than that.

What’s the best thing about being an apprentice?

Learning new skills and having the opportunity to work alongside experienced colleagues across various departments gives me more confidence in my role. I also enjoy attending college and learn a great deal from tutors and other students about how different sectors operate.

Did you have any preconceptions before your first day?

My initial expectation of this apprenticeship was that it would be heavily weighted towards administrative duties. However, it quickly became apparent that my role would include many different elements that I had not considered, such as driving a forklift truck. In fact, I have even completed a counterbalance forklift truck qualification.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to get an apprenticeship?

My apprenticeship has opened so many doors for me. I would urge any young person to seriously consider one as it could help you discover skills that you didn’t realise you had.

Gateshead College
For more information about apprenticeships with Gateshead College, visit

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