Leyland’s plan to train engineers

The business

Lancashire-based Leyland Trucks, a division of PACCAR Group, runs the UK’s only remaining heavy truck production plant. Originally established in 1896, the company produces 20,000 trucks a year from its assembly base in Preston, Lancashire. Vehicles are sold across Europe under the DAF name, which claims to be Europe’s fastest-growing truck brand. The 1,200-strong workforce at the Leyland base includes 120 design engineers.

The challenge

As a major manufacturer, the firm requires a continual flow of committed, proficient engineers. But a lack of school leavers interested in engineering as a career, coupled with a steady stream of older, experienced people retiring, means Leyland has struggled to recruit enough engineers to the business.

A clutch of similarly high-profile automotive manufacturers based nearby, including Bentley and Vauxhall, only adds to the pressure of recruiting staff.

Leyland Trucks’ HR development manager Lyn Butler sums up: “Fewer school leavers are taking up engineering as a profession, and we have seen a recent increase in the number of highly qualified employees reaching retirement age. The result is that the company will be faced with a shortage of professional engineers in the future if it doesn’t take action now.”

The solution

By joining forces with Runshaw College and Blackpool & Fylde College, the firm developed an in-house trainee course that allowed existing employees to gain further academic experience as well as design qualifications.

“We have numerous people who have the ability and commitment to improve career prospects through further study,” Butler says. “Some may have left school undecided about their career choice and not having taken their education to a higher level. But by participating in this programme they can now do that, while at the same time pursuing a worthwhile and well-paid career as an engineer.”

The Trainee Design Engineer programme was set up in October 2006 to make the best of Leyland’s existing workforce. Thirty employees from all parts of the business applied to take part in the two-year programme, with only five – whose ages range between 23 and 39 – gaining places.

The selection process involved a short interview, a series of technical aptitude tests and a second interview with managers.

For the successful candidates, there is the opportunity to study with experienced designers, learning the fundamentals of engineering design and development. Each candidate undertakes four six-month placements in different areas of the business.

The performance of each trainee is measured after each placement, and participants are assigned a personal mentor, who meets with them once a week to discuss any issues.

Butler says that Leyland looks for a number of key attributes from potential applications: a logical thought process commitment to the company academic capability, with a minimum existing qualification equivalent to a BTEC in engineering and good teamworking skills.

If successful after the two-year programme, each trainee is offered a job as a design engineer, as well as the opportunity to gain further academic qualifications, including the possibility of studying for a foundation degree in automotive manufacturing, accredited by Lancaster University.

Equivalent to an HND, the qualification can take the place of the first two years of a BEng degree, and can eventually lead to a full degree for those wishing to pursue this option.

So far, 13 Leyland employees have signed up for the Trainee Design Engineer programme, undertaking a three-year programme of part-time study.

The outcome

With considerable financial investment at stake – the scheme is fully funded to the tune of around £25,000 a year for the five participants – Butler is under pressure to ensure the new recruits contribute to the business.

In addition, costs for the foundation degree come in at around £2,000 per student.

The fact that a further two trainees will embark on the trainee scheme in January 2008 is the most tangible measure of its success so far, according to Butler.

“The trainees we have taken on have done remarkably well, especially given that their background is not in a design environment,” she says.

“In a year’s time, we will have five new engineers with a foundation in engineering and design, who also have a grounding in truck assembly. From day one, they are contributing to the business.”

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Employee perspective

“I’m really pleased with how I have fitted into the design side of the business. My background was a maintenance engineer – I started off as a craft apprentice with Leyland DAF and went on to manage a team on the maintenance side, so this is a complete departure.

“I arrived at a point in my working life where I needed a more exciting future. I feel a lot happier now and can feel a real future in my design role, which is different to my previous position in that I have more time to think about things and develop them. As a maintenance engineer, your job is much more reactive.

“There have been challenges along the way, such as getting used to a new environment, and wearing a shirt and tie to work was a real departure. Learning to use new tools, such as the drawing package, and applying it to a new environment, was a learning curve.

“The ongoing training in my design role is challenging enough, but I have also undertaken the foundation degree programme, and am putting in five or six hours at the weekend, as well as one or two hours after work every evening.”

Paul Melia, trainee design engineer

Guide to growing your own talent in seven steps

  1. Never underestimate the latent talent within your own workforce and employees’ desire to improve their prospects.
  2. Take a long-term view and see it not as a cost, but rather as an investment.
  3. Put a lot of effort into the planning. Think through the entire process and put a structure in place that covers the full life-cycle of the programme.
  4. Have a thorough, fair and transparent recruitment process.
  5. When considering candidates, don’t allow any preconceptions in terms of age, gender, social or educational background to feature in your decision.
  6. Have a good support structure in place for the trainees, with mentors and regular progress reviews.
  7. Share information with all employees around the process and the outcomes.

If I could do it again…

If Lyn Butler, HR development manager, was to do anything different with the trainee programme, she would focus on two areas. “First, I would hold an ‘open day’ for prospective applicants to have a look around the Product Design & Development Centre. Some people in the plant have never been in the centre, even though they may have worked at Leyland for a number of years. Although around 40 people applied for the positions, there remains a perception among shopfloor employees about people working in offices that might have deterred some from applying.

“Second, I would run the recruitment and appointment cycle in line with the academic year. This would enable any successful candidate not already qualified to the required minimum standard of a BTec in Mechanical Engineering to immediately enrol at college.”

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