Engineering Skills Group Freedom to Flourish Winners 2012
‘I was absolutely elated, I was really proud and I felt really pleased that it was a recognition that supported our aim to raise the profile of engineering on the island,’ says Chris Allen, who accepted the Freedom to Flourish Award at last year’s Isle of Man Newspapers’ Awards for Excellence on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce Engineering Skills Group…
‘You don’t get involved in these things for rewards, you get involved with them because you’re passionate about the topic and as a general manager of a manufacturing business I know that this is an important topic for the success of my business,’ explains Chris.
As well as running GE Aviation in Onchan, which makes components for aircraft landing gear, Chris is chairman of the Engineering Skills Group, set up by the Chamber of Commerce’s manufacturing and technical committee in response to challenges that had been highlighted by feedback from the industry.
Manufacturing on the island covers everything from precision engineering to food products, 52 companies in all, employing around 3,000 people.
As well as the problems such as distribution and the higher cost of land and utilities, which you might expect these companies to face on a small island, the biggest challenge is recruitment.
The sector needs to be able to find enough suitably skilled people, to replace existing workers as they retire and to sustain future growth.
Chris Allen explains: ‘Manufacturers on the Isle of Man are driving more and more to higher value-added products: these can be competitive in the global marketplace because the cost differentials become a smaller proportion of the actual cost of the products, particularly labour costs. So manufacturers are surviving on the Isle of Man as a consequence of that higher value added strategy.
‘But one of the things that does worry the industry is skills availability.
‘As you drive yourself up the high value added chain, you do have a requirement for higher skills and also, being based on the Isle of Man, you haven’t got a very large skill pool either.’
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of the manufacturers on the island don’t sell their products here, so the majority of people are not aware of what a significant sector this is.
In order to support the industry there are two specific elements the Engineering Skills Group has been working on: increasing awareness of the opportunities in manufacturing among students on the island and their teachers, and working with Isle of Man College to ensure that training courses deliver what manufacturers are looking for.
The first element is covered by the Awareness of Careers in Engineering (ACE) Project, which saw an Engineering Skills Champion, Adrian Harrison, appointed by the Skills Group and jointly funded by government and manufacturers. His role is to go into schools, working with all age groups to spark an interest in engineering. Adrian has the ability to engage with students in ways they can relate to, as Chris explains:
‘It’s just trying to bring home to them that engineering can be fun and it is a career choice. Adrian’s very good at it and the tools that he uses in those lessons are applicable to the age groups. In the early years, for example, Adrian uses a Playstation. All the kids know what a Playstation is, but do they know how it works, what’s inside it – do they know someone had to design it and make it?
‘Then in the later years we make the students aware of what college courses are available and what study opportunities there are for them to get them into engineering and manufacturing.’
The ACE project was launched nearly six years ago and the big increases manufacturers have been seeing in job applications are testimony to its success.
The other element the Engineering Skills Group has been addressing is that of ensuring that the training available on the island is continuing to deliver the skills that manufacturers require.
Consulting with government, the Isle of Man College and manufacturers, the Engineering Skills Group has been working to increase the number of apprenticeships available and also to develop the format of the engineering apprenticeship scheme.
Instead of a three-year course with day release, the course will be two years full time at the college followed by a third year working in the industry.
‘It means they are able to hit the ground running during the third year, so it takes some of the pressure off manufacturers having to mentor and train them during the first two years. That’s the latest initiative. The new course starts in September with 18 students [an increase from the previous 12]and this will increase in future years to 36,’ says Chris.
And he goes on to explain: ‘That’s what we were recognised for in terms of the Freedom to Flourish Award and I accepted that award on behalf of the committee, but there’s a lot of unsung heroes behind the scenes that contributed to it.
‘The Engineering Sector Skills Group comprises a number of people from industry and government who are working on these initiatives.
‘It’s voluntary, and there’s a lot of work done behind the scenes to work with government, work with college, work with manufacturers, canvas opinion, model courses and deliver courses.
‘It’s shown a huge amount of co-operation as well – manufacturers co-operating with one another to make sure their sustainability is ensured on the island. Manufacturers realise that we don’t compete on products – we all sell quite a diverse range of products – we are competing for skills. That one key challenge is, if we’re competing for resource, let’s get that pool of resource bigger - manufacturers wholeheartedly embrace that as an initiative.’
Have you achieved something which accords with the spirit of Freedom to Flourish?
The Freedom to Flourish Promise states that: ‘The Isle of Man is a land of possibility where people and business will find the right environment to reach their full potential, whatever they feel that might be.’
Every year the Isle of Man Government sponsors the Freedom to Flourish Awards at the Isle of Man Newspapers’ Awards for Excellence and entries are being invited for this year’s Awards.
For further details on how to enter the awards, please contact Trudi Williamson on 695695.