Skilled armed forces' personnel leaving regiments in the latest round of redundancies will be met with open arms in some North East businesses. Peter McCusker reports.
IT'S difficult to tally but for years many regional businesses have cried out for skilled staff, despite the North East having the highest unemployment rate in the country. With manufacturing still the region's lifeblood this inability to recruit skilled staff has tethered the dynamism of many a business. But there are signs of a shifting of the region's tectonic plates with the Adonis North East Economic Review highlighting the need for maximum focus on apprenticeships, skills and training. In the meantime many of the region's engineering businesses are tapping into an increasingly large pool of skilled talent - engineers and other skilled staff - from the rapidly diminishing ranks of the armed forces.Each year, more than 20,000 individuals leave the forces. This figure is set to dramatically increase as the Ministry of Defence plans to make 54,000 additional redundancies before 2015.
One business which is frustrated by a shortage of skilled staff is electric vehicle component designer and manufacturer Sevcon, based in Gateshead. After consolidating during the 2008 recession when it saw revenues almost halve to £13m it has bounced back with annual sales of £20m but says its growth plans are being frustrated by manpower skills issues. It has searched the globe for high-quality electronic and software engineers for its Team Valley headquarters and recently set up its own £200,000 bursary scheme to fund six students through university, with a guaranteed job on graduation.
Last week it hosted an event for like-minded businesses and forces' employment experts looking to take advantage of the new wave of leavers, with a particular focus of the members of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). Sevcon president and chief executive officer Matt Boyle said: "We have managed to recruit engineers from Columbia, China and elsewhere but we find it incredibly difficult getting engineers to the region. "The British Army is one of the largest and best trainers in the country. It produces people who have relevant technical and higher level people skills and these attributes are ideal for a business like ourselves."We will be now looking to recruit skilled ex-forces employees such as those serving in REME."
Gateshead-based Responsive Engineering employs over 180 across three sites on the Team Valley and has annual sales of £15m. It provides manufacturing services including machining, welding, pressing, assembly, testing as well as laser and waterjet cutting, mainly to the oil and gas industry and was recently bought by the North East Reece Group. Responsive Engineering managing director Peter Bernard said: "I am one of a number of business owners in the region trying to recruit to overcome the acute skills issues we are facing as a business and also as a region. "Businesses such as mine are suffering from the inability to recruit the right quality staff at the moment. "We need experienced people with particular skills and we see great opportunity in using the able and skilled engineering staff leaving the armed forces."
Business leaders also in attendance at last week's' event were Bill McGawley, managing director of the Newcastle-based TDR Group, Richard Bowden, of the National Australia Bank, Martin Dowd, managing director of car parts supplier Randstad and Andrew Kelly of ADK recruitment consultants. The armed forces were represented by officers from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers REME, and associated military support organisations.Lt Col Ian Adkins, of 102 Battalion REME, who is a chartered engineer, explained that of its soldiers repair, recover, maintain and modify most of the army's equipment from SA80 rifles to Challenger 2 tanks, and from Land Rovers to Apache helicopters. He said: "Our tradesmen are highly trained and well qualified; our primary technical trades are armourer, metal smith, recovery mechanic and vehicle mechanic. "We also have even more highly trained artificers to supervise them and officers, many of whom are chartered engineers, to lead them. "Army engineers have much to offer the engineering industry of the North East and are looking to form mutually beneficial partnerships with engineering businesses of all sizes. "There are hundreds of skilled engineers leaving the army every year, many settling in the North East. An additional 430 or so will leave on redundancy later this year as part of the Army's published redundancy programme. "These men and women are fantastically well-trained and bring a wealth of technical, personal and leadership skills to their future employers and are often snapped up by bigger businesses. Smaller engineering firms though might wish to know that there is this great pool of engineering talent that they might want to draw on.
The 102 Battalion REME unit is the main Territorial Army unit in the North East and Scotland with bases in Newton Aycliffe, Newcastle and Grangemouth. REME Captain Steph Scott was responsible for running a fleet of helicopters in Iraq. She explained that REME take to the top 10-20% of all candidates who apply to join the army. "Arte et Marte is the motto of REME and means by skill and by fighting. REME officers are known for working hard and playing hard," she said. James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, said: "Ex-REME engineers are trained to the highest of standards and instilled with a passionate work ethic, being used to working in the most pressured circumstances. "In most cases they require very little integration when leaving the forces and entering employment within the private sector. "The NECC has worked closely with the British Army to help find work in North East businesses for ex-soldiers that are skilled in this area. Nissan is one of our blue chip companies that is reaping the rewards of employing ex-forces personnel."
The Regular Forces Employment Association (RFEA) was formed in 1885 and since then has helped those leaving the armed forces to find and to remain in work. This is done as part of the Career Transition Partnership (CTP) for up to two years after discharge. The CTP is a partnering agreement between the Ministry of Defence and Right Management Ltd, who are global part of the Manpower Group. Gareth Barnes is the CTP representative in the North East and says over the years it has assisted over 170,000 service leavers with the transition to civilian life and supported thousands of organisations looking to employ ex-service personnel. Most of the UK's blue-chip companies partner RFEA including Siemens, Tesco, British Gas, Rolls-Royce and BT which has taken over 1,200 ex-forces personnel over the years. He said: "Service leavers make highly-skilled, committed and capable employees, and have a wide range of transferrable skills and they're in big demand by many organisations."
One of the region's fastest-growing areas is the energy sector and Durham-based NOF Energy, which represents the interest of over 400 energy businesses, has likewise launched a drive to recruit ex-military personnel into the industry. It has teamed up with The British Forces Resettlement Services (BFRS) to launch The Military2Energy Careers Service. The service offers NOF Energy members the opportunity to communicate with and recruit from BFRS's Armed Forces community of skilled Service leavers. Joanne Leng MBE, director business development at NOF Energy, said: "The transferable skills of armed forces personnel make them perfect candidates for positions within the energy sector, with many possessing specialist engineering and technical skills in high demand from the sector." "The Military2Energy Careers Service offers businesses in the energy sector an excellent platform to take advantage of the fantastic skills on offer and I would urge them to get involved with the scheme."
Peter Barton, works for the REME Job seekers division RAJA (REME Association Job Agency) and travelled from Berkshire to the forum. He said: "We believe we have a duty to ensure that they are given the best possible opportunity to succeed in their civilian careers. "In some cases potential employers are unaware of their value and the contribution that they could make to their organisations. The RAJA exists to help those leaving the REME find civilian employment opportunities. "Effectively we are in the position of injecting a pool of engineering, management and leadership talent into industry and society every year in the order of around 1,100 people.
"Our officers and soldiers have a vast wealth of experience in various disciplines of mechanical and electrical engineering including rotor aircraft, electronics, tracked and wheeled vehicles, weapon systems and metalwork, as well as management and leadership experience in a number of environments. "Many will have been trained and educated to HND standard or higher, many will be associated with professional engineering and management bodies as members or fellows and may be registered with the Engineering Council (UK) as engineering technicians, incorporated engineers or chartered engineers."
One of the first ports of call for employers wanting to recruit ex-forces staff is the Right Job website run by the CTP, which can be found by visiting: www.ctp.org.uk.
Boyle said: "I would love to see the situation where we could train, attract and retain good engineers in the region, but as things stand we will be looking to tap into the highly-skilled pool of ex-armed forces personnel over the coming months and years."