In for the skill
At the Nissan plant in Sunderland, where a car rolls off the production line every 40 seconds, keeping the workforce trained to stay abreast of technological change is a constant challenge.
To help cut costs and remain competitive, the car giant is trying to develop the "digital factory", where 3-D imaging will test virtual car parts throughout their design and production processes. This will have training implications not only for Nissan staff, but also for the companies in its supply chain.
It also highlights the level of specialist skills required by a big company such as Nissan - and the gulf between those needs and the training that the education system can provide.
"Colleges in general don't have the capability to support this kind of workforce development," says Steve Pallas, the Japanese company's manager of training and development. "I think colleges have got a role to play when it's straightforward qualifications. But when it comes to vocational qualifications, their staff tend not to have the kind of skills or the up-to-date skills we're looking for."
Nissan is a member of the North East Productivity Alliance (NEPA) - which includes such industrial giants as Black & Decker and Rolls-Royce. The alliance is trying to redress this skills gap. One criticism that firms such as Nissan have is that the existing qualification system is far too complex: there are too many awarding bodies and standards for their needs.
With help from the Learning and Skills Council, NEPA is trying to develop its own set of qualifications, which could offer high-volume companies and their employees a simpler progression route. The local learning and skills council in Tyne and Wear has identified huge skills needs across many sectors. In the past year, there have been a number of high-profile responses to the skills gaps locally.
A new £1.7 million Aviation Academy is due to open at Newcastle Airport in June to address the national and European shortage of aircraft engineers. The academy will offer its first degree courses from October this year, with hands-on technical training on the centre's own Boeing 737 airliner.
The project has been developed by a diverse partnership called One NorthEast, which consists of the regional development agency, the local learning and skills council, Newcastle Airport, Kingston University, City of Bristol College and Newcastle College. Similarly the local learning and skills council is working with companies to identify and meet needs in Tyneside's shipbuilding industry. At Swan Hunter, the Modern Apprenticeship scheme has been expanded to try and fill a generation gap between young apprentices and those approaching retirement.
"A classic statistic in the North-east is that there are more people now over 60 than under 25 in shipbuilding and related professions, and therefore there's a big training need," says Chris Roberts, executive director of LSC Tyne and Wear. The council has also worked with engineering companies to produce the Adult Competence in Engineering certificate, a training programme for those aged 25 and over based on NVQ level 3 standards. So far, 22 companies have signed up.
Another skills need has been identified with Newcastle and Gateshead's bid to become European Capital of Culture 2008. They are strong contenders.
"I know it sounds improbable to people down south, but Newcastle is getting a lot of tourists," says Mr Roberts. "There's a projection that we could get up to 17,000 new jobs around cultural industries in the next five years."
Meanwhile, FE colleges in Tyne and Wear are developing courses to meet employer needs. South Tyneside college has achieved centre of vocational excellence status in marine technology, while Gateshead College has reached the same level for automotive technology, and Newcastle College is developing a centre of excellence in catering. From its earliest days, the Tyne and Wear learning and skills council has met partnerships of the six FE colleges, 68 private training providers, chief education officers and school heads. Mr Roberts believes the emerging agenda to broaden vocational choices for 14 to 19-year-olds will further help employers' training needs.
"I would say we're much more aware of employers needs," he says, "and I think providers are becoming increasingly aware, and this reaches down into the 14-19 agenda.
"One of the big things that's happening to us at the moment is that a large number of 14-year-olds have come out of school and gone to college. Next year it's anticipated that that figure will grow to 5,000."
As well as the skills issues it faces from big employers, Tyne and Wear also has the huge challenge of addressing training needs of small to medium-sized enterprises. There are more than 10,000 small businesses.
"I think the large employers have a reasonably good idea of their skill needs," says Mr Roberts. "But the majority of companies are SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) and some of them are very small. It's very difficult for us to get a collective view."
Tyne & Wear LSC in partnership with Business Link is running an employer training pilot scheme called eQ8, which offers firms - particularly small ones- advice and financial help in training staff in basic skills, including literacy and numeracy as well as level 2 NVQs.
Throughout this year, businesses can get free information, advice and guidance, subsidised training and assessment, and compensation for wage costs for staff taking time off for training.