Long-standing commitment to apprenticeships

October 3, 2018

As one of the first businesses in the North East to take on apprentices – with a commitment dating back 108 years – Ford Engineering Group is now taking a leading role in ensuring that such vital opportunities are offered into the future. Deborah Busby spoke to chairman Geoff Ford to find out more

The Ford Engineering Group, one of the region’s engineering stalwarts, has offered apprenticeships to countless young people over the years – with 14 of its current 142-strong workforce being apprentices.

The group (comprising Ford Aerospace, Ford Components and Ford Laminated Products) has now created the Ford Engineering Academy to address the major skills gap in engineering, while also helping to boost career prospects and aspirations in the North East.

Geoff Ford, chairman of The Ford Engineering Group, started his own career as an apprentice (then called an articled clerk) in an accountancy business. He is a passionate champion of engineering and its vital economic role, and is vocal about the importance of apprenticeships in supporting the development of the sector.

“We have a growing skills gap in this industry and a massive shortage of engineers – we need 50,000 new engineers across the UK and we need to make that happen. But instead of whinging about it, I wanted to do something about it and find a solution to this problem. I have heard people say that the North East has a reputation for sitting by the side of the road with its begging bowl, but I thought: ‘To hell with that’. I want to get on and get young people into engineering,” he says.

“My father, the second-generation MD of this business, started his career here as an apprentice aged 15 in 1930. I did the financial equivalent of an apprenticeship when I started out. As a family and a business, we understand the importance of apprenticeships and know the effect they can have. Alongside the training and career opportunities are the life skills that schools just don’t teach, and that is so important.

“I started out on £1 a week and worked five days a week, studying six nights a week, for five years so I could be an accountant. It showed me the value of hard work, and that there’s no substitute for that. But it also taught me how to prepare for the world of work, and that is vital. That’s something I have always made sure we instil into the young people we work with – teaching them the importance of being on time, looking smart, being polite, not messing about, being prepared to work late, knowing how to behave in an interview. “These are important lessons in life which we always make sure are part of the training we offer, and they are certainly something that everyone in the academy will learn very early on.”

The Ford Engineering Academy, which began life in South Tyneside in 2013 but relaunched in partnership with Gateshead College last year, offers six-month traineeship courses in Level 2 Performing Engineering Operations (PEO), to equip young people with the skills they will need to then go on to take an apprenticeship or job within an engineering firm. The most recent course, which began in September, had an intake of 40, some of whom may go on to join Ford Engineering, but will have the potential to go into any engineering business.

“The academy is for North East engineering in general, not just for Ford Engineering. We wouldn’t have the capacity to take 40 apprentices, but by doing this traineeship programme, these young people will be ready and prepared to take on a role anywhere. We need to create the next generation of engineers and this is making it happen,” says Geoff, who joined Ford Engineering in 1974.

“I went in to see the 40 new starters in their first week and I told them it’s hard work to become an engineer, but if you stick in, you will be able to name your price because the demand for engineers is monstrous. There is an industry out there crying out for them; this is the profession to be in without a doubt.”

The creation of the next generation of engineers will impact significantly on the sector and the wider UK economy, Geoff believes. He points to how manufacturing has gone from accounting for 35 percent of UK GDP to 11 per cent, whereas Germany’s has remained fairly static during the same period – a country whose approach we now need to adopt, he says.

“A couple of years ago, there was a poll about who is the UK’s best-known engineer. Instead of it being someone like James Dyson, it was Kevin Webster, the garage owner from Coronation Street.

Seemingly the British perception of an engineer is someone in dirty, oily overalls with a Biro in his top pocket – yet in Germany, their engineers are revered and their industry is held in the highest esteem,” he says.

“At Ford Engineering, we have had a group of college students coming over from Wuppertal, near Dortmund, each year for about 20 years, and they are light years ahead of where we are in this country. For our centenary in 2010, we made some specially-designed chess sets, but we couldn’t find the software to design one of the pieces – two of the German students were able to design the software instead.

“But instead of being envious of them, we need to emulate them, and that is what we want to do. Through our Academy, we are raising the aspirations and opportunities of young people, to show them what a fantastic industry this is and the careers they could have within it. A traineeship and then apprenticeship is a great way to start, and having done so in my own career, I know this is true.”

The Ford Engineering Group

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