Going places without a degree

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Vocational training offers better prospects than many academic courses. James Sturcke reports

The word on the factory floor is that he's been known to impress the secretaries by rolling up a shirt sleeve to show off his biceps.

For everyone else, however, Brian Fleet lets the facts speak for themselves. As senior vice-president of leading aircraft manufacturer Airbus he's in charge of 8,000 workers and handles an annual budget of a2 billion. As UK operational boss he is responsible for ensuring that wings for the group's aircraft are delivered from the UK factory in Broughton, north-east Wales, to Toulouse and Hamburg assembly plants on time. Among them is a new 46-metre long, giant.

The wing for the A380 "super Jumbo" is the biggest ever built; high enough to walk around inside and designed to carry nearly 100 tonnes of fuel.

Three have been delivered but won't be tested in flight until early next year. Fleet, the son of a welder, who started at Airbus, then called Hawker Sidley, as an apprentice in 1974, shows no sign of worrying about whether the A380 will actually fly.

"It will be the eighth wonder of the world," he says. "It will have a real 'wow' factor when people see the scale of it when it is delivered to the first customer in 2006.

"Each wing weighs 37 tonnes and has 750,000 holes for rivets and bolts.

Unlike the wings for other planes it is too big to airlift to Toulouse, so we built a road to take it to the River Dee. It goes first on a barge to the Port of Mostyn on the north Welsh coast then on a special ferry to France."

This can-do, no-fail philosophy dates from when Fleet, 48, was an apprentice. He quickly realised the world was a competitive place, that someone had to be the best and thought it might as well be him. He says he was determined not to be a loser.

Fleet finished his Higher National Diploma in aeronautical engineering and computer studies with some of the best grades ever recorded and rose to be programme control manager by the time he was 27. By the early 1990s he was in charge of Airbus operations in the UK but then left to become managing director of the arms manufacturer Royal Ordnance. When not selling sub-machine guns he could be found at South and East Cheshire Training and Enterprise Council. He became chairman of Cheshire and Warrington Learning and Skills Council and developed uncompromising views about government policy in further education.

"The strategy of getting 50 per cent of people to university is not helpful. If I were a headteacher and my school budget was based on the number pushed forward to university, it is clear that is where they would go. Whether they bloody wanted to or not, whether it was best for them or not, whether it was best for their family circumstances or not, I would push them to university because that's my budget for the school.

"We must as a society make sure education gives people the key to the door.

The vocational route should have equal weighting to the academic one.

Vocational education paid for by firms like ours is as good a key as creating degrees no one wants.

"When I was the regional LSC chairman I used to beat the drum. Now after rejoining Airbus last year I just practise what I preach."

The Airbus plants will this year take on 110 apprentices to add to the 270 already enrolled. Fleet says the organisation is "joined at the hip" with nearby Deeside College where the apprentices spend their first year.

The college's apprenticeship programme has trebled in size during the past five years. It has six staff based on Airbus's site. Fleet says that up to 60 per cent of his senior staff have gone through training at the college, himself included.

He adds: "We try to ensure the person we get is effective on the factory floor from day one. We invest time, money and effort at all levels of the organisation to make sure the college has a common understanding of what we want. We influence the curriculum and the skills taught. We believe in life-long learning because we work in an industry where technology changes fast."

The link with Airbus helped Deeside College, on the outskirts of Shotton, win a Queen's Award for further education in 2002. It is currently short-listed for a National Training Award. David Jones, deputy principal, due to become principal in September, says: "I have made it my business to know their business. I spent three days shadowing Airbus's factory head in January. We have got to know each other well and made sure we understand each other's needs.

"We try to recreate a factory environment in the college. The students come in at 7.45am and finish at 4.30pm with a half day on Fridays. We want to get the culture engrained into them from the start."

Any problems have been worked through. When Airbus had concerns about drop-out levels, the college introduced an attendance and achievement monitoring system to identify students at an early stage in danger of failing. Nick Tyson, the college's business manager for engineering, has a weekly two-hour meeting with his counterpart at Airbus.

Jones, a former chartered engineer, adds: "We've been able to apply the good practice from Airbus throughout the college. Last year there was a 39 per cent rise in college attainment.

"Our relationship with Airbus has been so successful we now have a couple of staff who fly down to their other factory in Filton, near Bristol, to deliver courses. Since we can't access English funding, Airbus pays more for it. But it shows if you deliver quality, on time and in the way a firm needs, they will pay for it."

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