A NEW flexible approach to training has led to more than 150 factory workers, most of whom left school without qualifications, being awarded NVQ level 2s in engineering production.
An enlightened training partnership between their employer, Pitney Bowes - a $4.4billion US-owned company making mail-handling equipment - and Harlow College has transformed a workforce who once saw themselves as educational failures into confident and multi-skilled professionals.
The training initiative, which ran between November 1999 and March 2003, came about because the company realised it needed to move away from making franking machines and over to making paper-handling machines.
At the time, many workers were used to performing a single production-line task throughout the day, and were paid according to how many units they produced.
For the company to start making new products, however, the employees had to become skilled at several different manufacturing tasks and had to take more individual responsibility for productivity and quality.
Along with Harlow College, Pitney Bowes's long-standing training provider, the firm decided to start an employee development programme at its Harlow factory.
This required 160 employees to enrol on an NVQ course in engineering production offered by the Engineering and Marine Training Authority.
Making such training compulsory was controversial and initially led to resentment from workers who were sceptical about the benefits, having taken part in previous training programmes that had foundered through lack of consistent management support.
Unusually, the course took place on site in a suite of training rooms alongside the production lines. The college installed 10 computers linked to its intranet. As the training was to take place in company time, the firm realised that it would have to accept a temporary fall in productivity of about 6 per cent Gary Trowles, who left school without any qualifications and later returned to study at an FE college, is a Harlow College electronics and IT lecturer turned training development adviser: he was seconded to Pitney Bowes to lead the programme.
Together with experts from the US parent company, he designed a course to suit its specific skill needs, which acknowledged the time constraints of the workers. The training team consisted of Mr Trowles, other Harlow lecturers and several Pitney Bowes trainers. Twelve of the firm's supervisors and quality engineers were trained as in-house assessors to conduct the work-based assessments.
Flexibility was vital to the success of the project. Generally, training took place in two-hour sessions throughout the day and was then repeated in the evenings when the night shift took over.
But the length of classes had to adjust to take account of production needs. If an assembly line was halted for any reason, Mr Trowles would take people off the shop floor and into the education suite.
The course participants were assessed on their ability to prepare their work areas and on their capacity to work with others. They were also assessed on how they assembled and used a range of machines and on their press-shop skills.
Training modules included a wide range of subjects, such as learning to learn, working in teams, operational problem-solving and even computer applications.
Each worker, including those who were middle-aged or nearing retirement, had 206 hours of training and development over two years. The course revealed approximately 35 employees had basic skills needs and that two male workers were dyslexic.
Encouragingly, all 160 gained the qualification, and production-line efficiency is now at its best yet. Mr Trowles says: "The commitment to the programme demonstrated by the employees grew and grew, as did their confidence and self-esteem when they began to recognise their achievements.
"There has been an increase in workforce confidence when it comes to conveying their opinions on working matters, especially during meetings," he adds.
Employee Beverley Haworth agrees and says that the NVQ qualification has given her more confidence and made her more willing to speak up about work issues.
Linda How, the company's human resources adviser, has also noticed that the training scheme has boosted employee confidence. Initially, she explains, many employees had been afraid of failing in front of their colleagues.
Mick Nock, the 48-year-old team leader for engraving, says that many of his fellow workers have not been in education since they left school and that at first the scheme "frightened the hell out of them".
Dave Gilmour, 46, who works in the components supply department, admits: "I thought I was too old to learn. But it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be."
Production manager Dave Cowdray believes that the initiative had helped employees think for themselves.
Bill Gray, team leader in the franking machines section, said Mr Trowles won the respect of the workforce by trying his hand at several of the manufacturing tasks.
But the success stories are not simply personal: there have been undeniable benefits for the company, too, as it has been able to dispense with five supervisory posts.
"The workforce is more flexible and employees are able to undertake several different operations on different products," says Mr Trowles. Now team members are paid according to their skills.
Impressed by the results, several other local firms have expressed an interest in similar training.
Mr Trowles has already begun one scheme with headlamp-maker Flexible Lamps, and is in discussion with Raytheon Systems, a manufacturer of advanced radar equipment for the new Eurofighter.
But perhaps Mr Trowles' greatest achievement is that Essex's Learning and Skills Council is using the scheme as a model of good practice for the pilot initiative Profit From Learning, aimed at raising the skill levels of mature workers up to NVQ level 2, all in company time.
FIRMS ON COURSE FOR AWARDS
* Pitney Bowes (Europe, Africa, Middle East) is run fromheadquarters in Harlow, Essex. With around 2,500 employees across the region, it serves more than 350,000 customers.
* Raytheon Systems, whichproduces aircraft radar equipment, has 130 employeesworking toward an EMTAengineering manufacture NVQ.
* Flexible Lamps, which makes headlamps for trucks, has a pilot programme of 56 staff aiming to gain the EMTA NVQin performing manufacturing operations.
* Jenway Ltd also has 26 employees working toward the EMTA NVQ in engineeringproduction, with a focus onelectronic product assembly.