MIKE Matthews, President of the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) and MD of Stockton-based Nifco UK, rolled up his sleeves and stepped back in time to learn at first hand what skills today’s apprentices are learning at the Tridonic manufacturing plant in Spennymoor.

This job swap to celebrate National Apprenticeship Week saw Mike turn his hand to toolmaking, machine maintenance and quality control of some of the 20k lighting control units which are produced at the factory every day.

He started his career as a toolmaker apprentice 31 years ago at Nifco, the company he now runs and is passionate about developing practical skills in the workplace.

He said: “I see it as a huge badge of honour to be a skilled man. We know the importance of apprentices to our businesses and work hard to ensure that, not only do they have the right skills, but that we keep them once they are trained.”

Tridonic’s management team are equally committed to an ambitious apprenticeship programme, with seven people learning skills with the business at present. The company takes pride in its imaginative approach to developing staff and has probably one of the greatest age ranges of apprenticeships in the area, starting with men and women in their mid-20s and rising to a 55 year old apprentice.

Barry Greenwood, Tridonic’s site maintenance and apprentice manager, was also a former apprentice and has worked for the business since 1977. He said: “I actively encourage our workers to join our apprentice programme, no matter how old they are, so they get a chance to develop their skills. Once people are given new opportunities through a training programme and college, they get satisfaction from contributing to the business in a different way. This gives them a chance for promotion and helps ensure we don’t have a skills gap where we could run short of specialist engineers.

“I like to call our apprenticeship route seven steps to Heaven. It allows people to learn and develop their competencies at their own pace in a clear way. Working withNECC Training as our training provider, we have a first class programme in place. Our apprentices are so well trained I can honestly say they could work anywhere in the world, although we want them to stay here obviously.”

Part of Tridonic’s skills training is based on a Lean Six Sigma approach, pioneered by Motorola, whereby apprentices are taught to become experts in maintenance and quality controls, with a clearly defined set of steps and financial targets to achieve.

Mike Matthews’ Nifco manufacturing business also has to ensure it has the right skills to cope with the year on year growth due to increasing demand from its clients which include Nissan’s Washington plant.

He has also recruited apprentices in almost every part of the Nifco team, to ensure that the next generation of leaders are ready to set up to the mark. This is a big challenge with the pace of growth at Nifco.

However he explained there were big benefits in using the apprenticeship route for creating an adaptable and highly skills workforce. Nifco has 48 apprentices working in its two plastic moulding factories at present.

With his apprentices, when they go to college, it is like turning on a turbo charge as their desire to work hard and succeed grows at an unprecedented rate.

As part of his time back on the factory floor Mike Matthews met three apprentices.

The first one he shadowed was Anthony Lowery, 36, a new product and production apprentice. He specialises in automatic optical 3D inspections where he checks machines for defects and explained to Mike how the process works to ensure all products are at the right standard. As part of his role he has also helped commission new machinery and visited France on behalf of Tridonic, a level of responsibility which is unusual in an apprenticeship scheme.

Quality control is of a paramount importance to Tridonic and Nifco alike and Jonathan Betts, 31, outlined his own role in this field in the second part of Mike Matthews’ apprenticeship tour. Jonathan explained he hadn’t known what he wanted to do when he was younger. He has worked for Tridonic for three and a half years and his apprenticeship has enable him to work out his own career path.

The third apprentice Mike Matthews met was a man who Barry Greenwood is particularly proud to have under his wing. Fifty five year old Peter Johnston has worked for the company for 38 years, starting straight from school. Before his new training he was a store supervisor but was encouraged to apply for the maintenance apprenticeship. He is going to college as part of his training and is looking forward to it although he laughed that his likely to be older than some of his lecturers.

Peter’s route into maintenance apprenticeship is one that Barry has pioneered, where staff working in various parts of the factory get the chance to work on his maintenance shifts at a weekend. Once they have completed this work, when apprenticeships become available he encourages people to apply to learn the skills needed to become a fully qualified maintenance engineer.

An integral part of the apprentices’ training is time in a traditional tool shop with another long-serving employee and former apprentice who boasts 40 years under his belt. Gary Eltringham runs the training room to ensure the people learn skills like cutting on laithes and precise metalwork. Training also takes place at New College Durham.

Tridonic’s MD Stuart Sloane is another former electronic apprentice who worked his way up the company over 33 years. He has also worked for the Group in Australia for two years but came back to Spennymoor when he had the opportunity.

Mike Matthews and Stuart agreed the secret of building strong workforces is similar to a football team - having the right people in the right positions and apprentices play an key part in that line up.

Mike Matthews was full of praise for Tridonic’s approach to training and apprenticeships and the benefits of it which could be seen all around the factory.

He said: “It is really inspiring to see a business that takes training and development of its business so seriously, and it was fantastic to join the team for a day and return to my roots. Once you have a trade, you never lose it, and I enjoyed getting stuck in and talking to the Tridonic team about their role within the business.

“Tridonic is a company that has taken the apprentice model and evolved it to fit really perfectly in real life situations. By encouraging staff to train they are getting great employee engagement and it is paying dividends in all manner of ways from staff retention to productivity. You can clearly see that close working, in a pragmatic and flexible way, knits the whole business together.”

He was also quick to recognise Tridonic was very similar to his own company as it stressed the importance of fostering a community spirit within the workforce, something he said was also a strength generally in the North East.

Both Barry Greenwood and Mike Matthews were agreed that there were also improvements in how apprentices learnt their skills in college. They believed there were advantages in the old system where students attended night-classes to get their qualifications, ensuring their work pattern was not interrupted on a regular basis.

In Barry Greenwood’s view it would even be worth apprenticeships being spread out over 10 years in a modular system, where people who worked shifts were more easily able to attend courses.

Mike Matthews said: “Tridonic’s approach to apprenticeships is business gold. They are using their whole, positive company culture to close the skills gap and ensuring they don’t have shortages in any particular field by developing existing employees. It is a great example of a tight knit operation and one that is giving something back to the community.”

Tridonic is part of the global Zumtobel Group, based in Austria, with a worldwide revenues of EUR 1,312.6 million, which specialises in the field of innovative lighting solutions and components.

There are just over 200 employees at Tridonic’s Spennymoor factory including agency workers. Its staff retention rate is first class with the average length of service being 18 years.

The NECC’s Manifesto pledges to help the region a Working North East and this success story is an example of how to make that a reality.