If the rubber manufacturing sector is to sustain its recovery over the longer term it is vital that it has a skilled workforce at all levels. Achieving this is easier said than done. As is common across the manufacturing economy it is not easy to attract good talent into a sector like ours, which tends to be regarded, wrongly, as traditional and unexciting. On top of this our sector is fragmented in terms of both the goods it makes and where it makes them, making it difficult to set up training arrangements that are apposite to the particular products made and easily accessible to employers. The industry has been able to cope in the last few years but primarily because it has still been able to rely on a cadre of older employees who have had experience in the business over many years. However these people are moving into retirement and it is increasingly difficult to replace them with younger people with the training and expertise required. Membership surveys taken conducted by BRPPA in the last five years have shown that this is now the principal concern of companies in the industry at this time.
At the same time as expertise, particularly in rubber technology, has become more and more scarce, training provision to rectify this has fallen. Over the last fifteen years rubber training has ceased in several FE Colleges, notably Burton, Trafford and Wiltshire (ex-Trowbridge), paralleled by loss of provision in the Higher Education sector, notably Manchester Metropolitan University and London Metropolitan University.
In the past Government had helped, through its funding of the Sector Skills Council (SSC) network, particular sectors to define their needs and facilitate provision of training. The SSC for our sector – Cogent – was helpful in identifying skills gaps, developing skills standards and through its associated National Skills Academy for the Process Industries facilitating the provision of appropriate training. All that changed in 2013-2014, when the Government switched its funding away from the SSCs directly to employers groups, who had to bid in for the funding themselves; the rationale was that this would enable employers to define and obtain the funding that they felt was appropriate rather than what providers were geared up to provide. Because the employers in fellow sectors covered by the Cogent footprint – particularly the oil/gas, nuclear, chemical and pharmaceutical sectors – tend to be large companies with the resources to shape Government help to their own needs, sectors like the polymer sector, with a predominance of SMEs, have tended to lose out. So the polymer sector had little input into the bid made by the Cogent employer group in the autumn of 2013 for a ‘Science Industry Partnership’ (SIP), which was approved in the summer of 2014, to the tune of £32.6m, topped up by the employer side to make a total of £52m. Smaller parts of the polymer sector such as the rubber sector had minimal input, and it still does as work is done on deciding in detail how the money is being spent.
Action being taken
It has been clear that if the position is to be reversed our sector has to take matters into its own hands. An ad hoc group of interested parties – covering BRPPA itself, employers within BRPPA, training providers (colleges, other bodies and individuals, the Knowledge Transfer Network and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining) has been set up to address the issues. Since with limited resources it is impossible to cover the whole waterfront the focus of the group is on two particular facets of the training requirement: rubber technology training and apprenticeships.
Rubber Technology Training
The aim of the group here is to define where the demand for training lies and to identify and develop ways of meeting this demand. The aim is essentially to develop a flexible and transparent network of provision at various levels, which can be drawn upon by employers at need. Questionnaires have been drawn up by BRPPA for employers and interested individuals respectively and are being circulated as widely as possible across the industry. Armed with responses to this, the group will consider in the course of the next few months seek to develop in a more rational way the training necessary to meet actual demand.
The group is still very much at an early stage in its work. However it is possible to put forward some very provisional conclusions as follows:
i) As a general model the 2 year course in rubber technology currently being run by South Leicestershire College for some 14 students on a day-a-week basis could act as a paradigm for training aimed for ‘public’ offering at Level 3. The formal specification should be aligned better to meet modern day needs and ideally should have an element of flexibility to cater for the wide variety of interests that should be covered. In principle the model should be offered for courses run out of other colleges, but this would depend on demand;
ii) In the meantime every effort should be made to extend the South Leics course to a new cohort of students at the end of the current course (mid 2016); consideration should be given to some element of block release;
iii) This should be complemented by in-house, company specific training courses run broadly along the lines of courses already run for certain specific companies, associated with colleges to provide for formal qualifications. Teaching could be done by internal or external trainers. Hands on elements are essential, so the norm would be the use of the company’s own equipment; college based teaching could be provided alongside. If acceptable to the host company these courses could be open to other companies’ staff;
iv) Less formal courses would also continue (along the lines run already run by certain bodies and individuals) to meet for companies specific needs. Necessarily these should be as flexible as possible but common modules could be helpful, especially if new trainers are to be attracted into the business. A log of trainers should be maintained and publicised as far as possible;
v) The aim is in due course to address formal provision at levels1/2, but focus should in the meantime be on level 3. At higher levels every encouragement should be made to get people onto the London Met Foundation degree course;
vi) There should be as much continuing publicity as possible given to the actions being taken, so that take up of provision is maximised.
The vast bulk of the money available under the SIP award is going into the development and support of apprenticeships in the Cogent community. In the last half of 2014 a cross-sectoral framework – for so-called ‘trailblazer’ apprenticeships – has been formulated and cascaded down into programmes for individual sectors. For the Cogent sector the current concentration has been on drawing up specifications for ‘science manufacturing technician’ and ‘science laboratory technician’ apprenticeships at level 3. These entail defining the standards to be met and the processes of assessment and certification to be followed. The polymer version of these is being worked up within an Employers Group for the polymer sector. Alongside this Cogent had developed the capacity to draw up with interested employers detailed, tailor made training programmes for apprentices. Our concern is to ensure that employers within the sector are kept up date with the new standards and processes as well as being able to access the detailed services and funding available. More details of the assistance available from Cogent to companies in drawing up detailed programmes for their apprentices are available from Jeremy Pingstone, Apprenticeship Advisor, Cogent Skills at firstname.lastname@example.org, T: 01905 770 868 M: 07703 231 964, Unit 5, Mandarin Court, Centre Park, Warrington WA1 1GG.
What you can do
Interested parties are invited:
i) to complete the simple questionnaire on rubber technology and return it to British Rubber and Polyurethane Products Association at the address shown on the questionnaire; for the version to be completed by companies and organisations please click here; or the version to be completed by individuals please click here
ii) to comment on the provisional conclusions set out above (again to BRPPA);
iii) to let us have any other views germane to these issues (via BRPPA).