A three-way deal between college, employers and school-leavers is helping to revive the engineering industry in a Merseyside town, reports Sue Jones
COAL, glass and Beecham's pills brought prosperity to St Helens, in Merseyside but recession hit the town hard. The mines closed, the pharmaceuticals pulled out and glass production shrank.
Training within industry languished and it became clear that if the economy did revive, there would be a serious skills shortage. But local firms can look to further education for the quality standards they need to compete on the world market.
For St Helens the way up has been through co-operation, investment and long-term planning. St Helens Chamber grew out of a merger between the chamber of commerce, the training and enterprise council and Business Link, while the local authority set up a city-centre business park to encourage and advise local enterprise, including a new technology centre on the same site as St Helens College.
Although the education authority lost control of the college with incorporation, it continued its investment gamble in the college technology centre against the current financial orthodoxy of cost-cutting. Local industry, such as glass and automotive engineering, needed well-trained labour to regenerate the economy.
But it can take five years and an investment of pound;50,000 before engineers make a real profit for their employers and in that time the needs of the industry can
suddenly change. Few small and medium-sized enterprises can afford these costs. Their finance is often short-term and if they cannot afford to train their staff, they become uncompetitive and go under. Who should carry the risk of training school-leavers to go into high-tech jobs?
Sixteen-year-olds with no industrial experience are a liability in a busy workshop and need an investment of six months' training before a company will be interested. Mike Morris, head of the engineering centre at St Helens College, believes the public sector should take the initial risk. "Someone's got to create the chicken before the egg can be laid."
Working closely with local schools, the LEA, the careers service, local industry and St Helens Chamber, the engineering centre has developed a scheme to recruit, train and retain youngsters.
Pupils in Years 10 and 11 come in for taster sessions and school-leavers can start an intensive ix-month course funded by the TEC. They attend college for 30 hours a week, with four days in the workshop and one on key skills, building up an NVQ portfolio.
They are also learning about industrial life. Faced with the threat of being third-generation unemployed, some have little chance of learning about the world of work from their families. But in college, they start at 8.30am, clock on and off and are expected to follow all the normal factory disciplines. Mr Morris calls it a "finishing school for the engineering industry".
By Easter they are ready for work placements in local industry, for which they are "marketed" by the college. They have basic health and safety and workshop skills so they can be useful to the company and can judge for themselves whether this is the kind of work they really want. The company can also decide whether they want to invest in this youngster. If there is mutual enthusiasm, St Helens Chamber sets up a tri-partite agreement. The student is employed, the company gets a training grant through the chamber and the college continues training for the Modern Apprenticeship.
St Helens College, which won a Beacon Award and was the first to get an inspection Grade 1 in engineering, now has 120 engineering Modern Apprentices and 50 more training for the glass industry.
It also has a European dimension. Engineering Centre staff went out to their twin town of Stuttgart to see how they managed their training and came back with a Mercedes sports car for the students to work on. The Germans liked the British NVQs. Mr Morris thinks that the UK is much more flexible about giving people a second chance to get back into education and training. But he was impressed with the coherent planning for work, education and training within the German system.
At St Helens, coherence has come through co-operation between institutions in education and industry that at best could have been disconnected and at worst in competition. "We trust each other enough to get round the table and talk it through if there's a problem," said Mr Morris.
But change is on the way. When the Learning and Skills Council is set up next year with a new set of rules, St Helens will become part of a much bigger organisation based in Liverpool, though Mr Morris is optimistic that the local model will continue to thrive on what he hopes will be a level playing field.