New blood is the life blood for local engineering firms

The experience of older employees is highly valued at Forgemasters. The firm is ensuring their skills are passed on to young recruits.
The experience of older employees is highly valued at Forgemasters. The firm is ensuring their skills are passed on to young recruits.
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STANDFIRST: Every boss worth his salt knows experience is priceless - and strives to keep it within his workforce.

But so is bringing in new blood. Without it, knowledge and skills cannot be passed on. Jo Davison looks at how Sheffield’s manufacturing industry is changing the age ratio on the factory floor...

But so is bringing in new blood. Without it, knowledge and skills cannot be passed on. Jo Davison looks at how Sheffield’s manufacturing industry is changing the age ratio on the factory floor...

Fear of change and wariness of the eager, fresh-faced new recruit.

They were things Marie Cooper knew all about as her team attempted to introduce new blood into Atterclife-based President Engineering Group, a world-leading cryogenic valve manufacturer.

When she joined the company then known as the Flow Group as finance manager back in 2005, she was just 28. From the workforce, there was wariness of one so young - and a woman to boot.

““There was only one person younger than me in the entire factory - apprentice engineer Chris Hey, who was 25.

“But I put my overalls on and went onto the shop floor to learn the business from the bottom up. I think that went a long way toward older workers accepting me,” she reflects. “It also helped me to get to the root of some of the problems we were facing.”

The company restructured, down-sized premises and had to make some redundancies but created a more solid business. But there was still a problem; of the 76 employees, only nine per cent were under 40. The average age was 55.. “There were huge positives to this. Our workers knew our products, our suppliers and our customers really well. They could tell you anything you needed to know and that was invaluable,” Marie is quick to add.

“But there was a big resistance to change. It was as if we were questioning their ability when we suggested there could be better and more profitable ways of doing things.

“Another issue was retirement. Because people can now choose when they want to go, it’s difficult for companies to plan around the loss of skill and knowledge,” says Marie, who alongside MD Mark Henley and engineering manager John Waddington staged a management buy-out of Flow Group in 2010.

The company forged on, seeking young recruits to fill its skills gaps - a purchasing manager in his 30s and a quality manager in his 40s. “But the comment we heard most from workers was: they can’t tell us what to do because we’ve seen it all and done it all,” says Marie.

In 2009 three apprentices from Brinsworth’s Academy of Engineering were brought in. “Older employees said that training them would be a pain. What we heard many times was: ‘In the time it takes, we could have done the job ourselves.’”

But the new recruits won everyone over. “They were so enthusiastic and interested in the job, older workers fell into a teaching role and felt respected and valued. They are now fatherly and protective to apprentices and quick to congratulate when they pass exams. I’m sure they have felt reminded about relationships they developed with older, wiser heads when they started out.”

Now there are five apprentices, the percentage of the workforce under 55 has gone from nine per cent to 33 per cent and the company are so pleased with the revitalised atmosphere on its factory floor, it hopes to recruit two more academy students in September.

Marie is passionate about the positives that come from changing the age ratio on the factory floor: “The mix of ages, experience and opinions has radically changed our company; it’s energised us,” she enthuses. “Our firm is a much more enjoyable place to be.”


Providing businesses with trained up young people who are able to step straight in the workforce is key to successfully lowering the average age of a company’s workers, says the Brinsworth Academy of Engineering.

The academy on Sheffield Road in Rotherham is helping to create the thousands of recruits needed to keep pace with growth and retirements in an ageing workforce.

It ensures its students are ‘good to go’ straight into work places and contribute to the working day without having to be taught every move by a designated employee - something that would be a drain and a hindrance to a pared-back workforce.

Students on 42-week Employer Ready Apprenticeship courses created after close consultation with local engineering, manufacturing and digital industry companies, have their own machine to work on, gaining practical experience of everything from start-up to shut down. They leave literally employer-ready.

Flexibility on joining dates is another important factor in ensuring a problem-free integration of apprentices. After recognising employers face increasing production demands and needing new recruits all year round, young people aged 16 and 21 can join the academy programme at several points throughout the year.


Sheffield Forgemasters believes an injection of youth onto the factory floor is vital not only to the company’s health, but to British industry.

The company invests more than £1m a year in its award-winning apprenticeships training programme and says the benefits of introducing young blood into the workforce are many.

Apprenticeships address the serious skills challenges that are hindering productivity within the country’s engineering industry and ensure the 200 years of in-house expertise at Forgemasters is transferred through generations.

Apprentices have lowered the average age of the firm’s workforce from 50 to 42 and increased employee loyalty; 85% of apprentices complete their training and virtually all stay with the company, leading to an established and loyal workforce and reduced recruitment costs.

Currently its 743-strong workforce has 50 apprentices in all departments. Places are much sought-after; in 2013, 600 applicants applied for nine places and training that results in a raft of qualifications spanning NVQs to Phds. All apprentices learn from one-to-one mentors, many of whom have more than 30 years of industry experience to pass on.

Graham Honeyman, chief executive at SFIL, said: “Forgemasters services increasingly specialist markets and has long since identified the need to maintain specialist skills. The employment of highly trained specialists and a strategic, co-ordinated focus on apprenticeships is critical to our future. It maintains and builds upon existing knowledge and ensures that state-of-the-art engineering skills are passed down through the company.

“Apprentices contribute to the continued evolution of the company and are offered permanent positions with Forgemasters from day one, which is a great incentive to excel. All apprentices work on real life projects, many win national awards and the close familial nature of the business means we often see apprentices who are the children of older employees

“Many of our apprentices have also bought shares in the company and have a great sense of ownership of the business.”


Proof that the young blood becomes the industry’s future is Gareth Barker.

He became boss of the Forgings Division 12 years after being set on as an 18-year-old apprentice engineer.
The former Aston Comprehensive pupil was promoted to product manager of the roll-manufacturing division at 25. By 30 he was the south machine shop’s operations director - the company’s youngest ever divisional director.

Made managing director of the forgings division in 2011, he manages 450 staff across the forge and heat treatment, north and south machine shops, work roll division, technical and sales support - areas responsible for 50 per cent of the company’s turnover.

Gareth, who won Yorkshire Young Director of the Year at the Institute of Directors’ regional awards in 2011, said: “Forgemasters presented me with the fantastic opportunity of a career, which I have worked hard to honour. I hope my transition from apprentice to managing director acts as an incentive for other youngsters to work hard and show their capability - and that other companies see my story as justification that apprenticeships really do work.