Better together: Collaboration is the key to success

May 1, 2019

With a growing business and a team of happy, long-serving employees on board, the future looked bright for Essity’s Prudhoe Mill. But the low staff turnover threatened to create a major skills crisis until an innovative apprenticeship scheme delivered with Gateshead College prevented the company from becoming a victim of its own success

When Ian Callender took on the role of apprentice team leader at Essity’s Prudhoe Mill in 2012, he immediately recognised the importance of his new position.

“When I first started, I only had a small number of apprentices to look after,” he recalls, “but I knew that we’d need dozens more in the long run. Many employees who’d been here for years were due to retire around the same time, leaving big gaps across the business, so we knew we had to really step up our efforts to replace them.

“Our senior management team looked at all aspects of training to see what we could do to bridge the skills gap, and it was agreed that apprenticeships would be a key part of our succession plans going forward.”

Famous for producing Velvet and Cushelle toilet tissue, Essity had actually launched its apprenticeship scheme back in 2004, winning plaudits locally as well as further afield from Government ministers, MEPs and even Swedish diplomats. But it was eight years later, when Ian moved from the training department to manage the scheme, that it really began to evolve and grow.

Realising that the company needed a radical approach to tackle a potentially crippling skills shortage, he worked with Gateshead College to build on the existing programme so apprentices could learn an even wider range of technical skills and spend more time applying their knowledge on the shop floor. More emphasis has been placed on the assessment of soft skills and behaviours, such as teamwork, resilience and problem-solving, and industry experts have been appointed in each area of the business to mentor and guide the apprentices on their journey.

It’s an approach that has transformed the apprenticeship programme into a stunning success story, and Ian is quick to recognise the influence of Gateshead College in all of this.

“Since we started working with them, we’ve seen several of our apprentices progress further, including those who’ve gone on to complete their HNC (Higher National Certificate) and work in management positions,” he says. “Just recently, ten of our young apprentices all achieved distinctions in their fourth-year HNC examinations and now they have permanent positions at Essity, with the opportunity to build a long-lasting career with us.

“In my experience, training people in this way is easier than recruiting workers who’ve learned their trade in a different industry, who might not have the exact skills we’re looking for and who are unwilling to change the way they work to suit our company. Working closely with Gateshead College gives us an effective succession plan and allows us to mould our apprentices, giving them the skills we require as a business, while still allowing them the freedom to express themselves and forge a career path that’s suitable for them.”

While Essity’s investment in apprenticeships has provided a career route for around 100 young people – a quarter of the Prudhoe Mill workforce – it has also had a significant positive impact on the company’s bottom line. Even allowing for salary costs and fees for recruiting the apprentices, the mill has saved £350,000.

Ian says: “It’s widely understood around our site that investment in apprentices is offset through savings on recruitment for posts becoming vacant, and through significantly lower use of temporary and contract staff. We’ve seen lower rates of lost- time injuries too, because apprentices seem more prepared to embrace our strong health and safety culture than experienced employees recruited from elsewhere who might be less willing to change their attitudes and approach to work.”

As the business grows, the number of apprentices taken on each year will increase from ten to 15, to 25 to ensure Essity can adequately replace staff who’ll retire in the next few years. And while this shift would pose problems for some training providers, Gateshead College’s ability

to adapt quickly and understand Essity’s future growth plans has ensured a seamless transition.

“They’ve really got to grips with our business, they know our succession plans inside out and what skills we need to achieve our goals,” says Ian. “Crucially, they’ve listened to us, taken on board any changes we’ve had to make within the business and adapted the training to suit. With so many of our employees due to retire in the next few years, many of them managers, we need more people with a higher level of skills across the business, people who’ve done HNCs or HNDs, and maybe even graduates who can come onto our apprenticeship programme. They won’t be starting from scratch, obviously; they won’t need the training that we give to a 16-year-old. But they can come in and complete other elements of the programme while learning about the company on the job.”

This flexible way of working and unique approach to the apprenticeship could be adopted by other engineering and manufacturing firms looking to bridge skills gaps.

Gateshead College’s business development director, Ivan Jepson, who has worked closely with Ian on the Essity apprenticeship, says: “Every business has different situations to deal with, different challenges to overcome. As we’ve seen with Essity, any training programme has to be fit-for-purpose and not just something that’s been lifted off the shelf. If companies find a reliable training partner who shares this view, and who can anticipate and react quickly to sudden changes in circumstance, it will make their lives so much easier.

“Some colleges will say ‘we’ll only deliver apprenticeships for 16-19 year-olds’ but we modified the Essity apprenticeship to accommodate more people with higher-level skills. Ian has been great to work with, a real pleasure, and when you have that strong relationship between employer and training provider it can bring about some amazing results.”

It’s a view that’s shared by Ian, a strong champion of workforce development who started his career as an apprentice maintenance fitter and worked his way up the ladder, gaining further qualifications in assessing, verification and teaching, and becoming an ambassador for the National Apprenticeship Service.

He was so impressed by the new apprenticeship he encouraged his 16-year-old son Ben to get involved. As a result, Ben’s progressing well at the company, achieving a distinction in his manufacturing and engineering BTEC diploma and now doing the first year of his HNC. Also

on board are several other young people at the beginning of their careers, including Amber Megan, an apprentice engineer who decided that earning and learning on the job was a better bet than going to university.

“Our partnership with Gateshead College shows other businesses that apprenticeships work, in terms of putting people on an exciting career path and giving employers the chance to save costs, tackle skills shortages and develop great ideas that can improve the business,” says Ian. “And apprenticeships have certainly worked for me and lots of others at our company.”

The job of upskilling the workforce will continue at Essity, just as it will at dozens of other firms around the region. Not only will this help individual companies to grow and develop, it will make the region’s advanced manufacturing and engineering sectors better able to compete in the long run.

“These sectors are so critical to the fortunes of the North East economy,” says Ivan. “If we can encourage companies to invest in their workforce – and many of them already do – we can transform entire industries and put them in the best possible position to be successful.”

Gateshead College
Photo: Ian Callender (Essity) and Ivan Jepson (Gateshead College)

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