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Harder to find high-fliers

Computer technology has brought big changes to Smiths Industries Aerospace.

Company spokesman Nick Fox gestures to the far wall of a large, open-plan office in the company's defence systems section. "The old drawing office used to go all the way over there," he says. "Now it's a quarter of that size. Today a lot of it is engineers inputting information into computer-aided design systems."

As well as coping with technological change, Smiths Industries Aerospace - which supplies advanced avionics systems to civil and military aeroplane manufacturers - is having increasing difficulty finding staff with the right skills and experience. This problem is particularly acute in information technology and design engineering.

The company has been at Bishop's Cleeve, near Cheltenham, since fleeing London in 1940. Today it employs some 2,000 people at its sprawling Gloucestershire site.

In the defence systems laboratories, white-coated electronics engineers test circuitry destined for a Hawk fighter's computer display. Because of the paramount need for safety in its products, the company says good training is vital.

Each division has extensive training departments which recruit staff at all levels, from school-leaver apprentices to those with high-quality degrees. Smiths also forges strong links with local schools and colleges.

Training officer Chris Fletcher says: "We have quite a high number of people coming to us with qualifications, but that certainly seems to be slowing down within Gloucestershire. I think it's taking the colleges a bit of time to get themselves to understand that we are their customer."

He believes the Gloucestershire skills audit was a valuable exercise, but says it must be followed up. "I think the disappointing part at the moment is in not seeing the circle rounded - that it's not getting back to the colleges. "

Also, in an industry like this, having the qualification is often not enough. Matthew Buzzing, a 19-year-old electrical engineering student at Bath University, considers himself fortunate.

He has gained a place as a sponsored worker at Smiths Industries for the holidays and will return to do the same again for the next two years.

"I've found my university course wasn't practical enough for what I've been doing here. Doing this means that when I graduate, I can put on my CV that I have worked here for 30 weeks. It will be good to have had the experience. "

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