Let there be light

7 mins read

Out of the darkness over skill shortages comes a 23 year-old who's bright, articulate and loyal to the SME that gave him his big break. Max Gosney meets Neil Butler and asks if we're peddling myths over the lack of talent for hire.

You keep scanning for bandages and a pair of shades as Neil Butler fizzes over the continuous improvement programme he's spearheading at SME-sized truck-tipper manufacturer, the Thompsons Group. The 23 year-old is the invisible man of UK manufacturing. Young, gifted, articulate and astute – the type of talent who trades asset-backed securities, not steel-backed truck trailers, according to the industry band wagon. "When I said I was going to work in manufacturing, my school organised an emergency meeting with the careers advice service," recalls Butler, production controller at Thompsons' Croydon factory, which has 50 shopfloor employees. "They said: 'do you really want to leave instead of completing your A-levels?' To them, I was making a mistake."Two promotions, two NVQs , a BTECH with distinction in mechanical engineering and a diploma in first line management later and it's now all too clear who made the error. While his graduate friends make for the Jobcentre, Butler will lead an improvement project that could generate six-figure savings. Someone with a track record in challenging the status quo should find himself at home with lean methodology. "My manager said: 'go and see what you make of it'," says Butler of the brief as he was dispatched to WM's Manufacturing Conference last November to swot up on how to deliver CI success. "The importance of influence in winning popular backing for your plans was something that really stood out. I've really tried hard to incorporate that into what I'm doing here." Six weeks in and the Thompsons Improvement Programme gathers pace. Five renowned solo artists from body-building, machine shop, wing and bolt up, finishing and fitting have been refashioned as a quintet affectionately dubbed: 'Butler's Dream Team'. "I wanted them to know I picked them to make them feel important. I've not just been told: 'use those people'," Butler says. With the band in place, Butler's next task is to get the group singing in harmony. "These guys are the shopfloor influencers. They will talk to everyone and, without them realising, people will share their views. If you get them on board then anything you talk about will get talked about." Which means the subject of process improvement is hotter than the welding torches scorching the steel-sided trailers on the shopfloor right now. If Butler and his quintet can use kaizen to boost build capacity then the factory could take on £500,000 in extra work over the course of a year. The project is off to a flyer with a crane introduced to hoist side panels onto a press after the team mapped out the inefficiencies of pulling people off the line to manually lift the metal panels. Butler says: "We want to go from nine to 10 complete lorries leaving the site a week. If we can do that not by hiring, firing or giving people more money in bonus, but just by changing the way we work, that's a great success." The road to that grand prize has begun with some basic ground rules under Butler. "In our meetings there are no titles. There's no: 'I'm the foreman, I want to do this'," he explains of his dream team's etiquette. "You can't pass off an opinion as fact. If you think something is rubbish then why is it rubbish? I don't want any bonus talk. This is about improving the process, not about arguing your pay packet. And, finally, information honesty – that's more for my side – if I don't think something can work then I have to be straight with the guys." Butler seems born to wear the coaching jacket. His inclusive style is winning over employees, often old enough to be a grandparent. "You have to be respectful. I don't tell them how to do it, but might say: 'I think it should be done like that, what do you think?' It's about involvement. If you try and put the hammer down, you're not going to get anywhere with anyone." It's an observation drawn from his own apprenticeship on the same factory floor where he tasks improvements. Butler says: "I saw first-hand some of the problems. The shopfloor could sometimes feel like they didn't have a voice or backing to do anything." Walking a mile in a machine operator's moccasins has lent Butler a sixth sense for production line politics. "We tend to avoid meeting as a group too often," he says of the CI team tactics. "I prefer to ask people for their thoughts on an individual basis. In a group you can get one bloke talking about his section for half an hour and he won't let anyone get a word in edgeways." Every eventuality investigated and counter-measured; the mind of an engineer at work and traits that were obvious from his first encounter with the Thompsons site as a 16 year-old. "My dad runs a body repair business and we came here to a mechanic on the corner of the industrial estate. I saw a tipper down the street and said: 'Oh, I didn't realise there was a haulage company here.' The guy at the mechanic's said: 'there isn't; they actually manufacture them here'." Butler wrote to Thompsons and organised a week's unpaid work experience during his half-term break. His initiative impressed and he was invited back that September as an apprentice on the understanding that he would go for a BTECH engineering qualification at a local college. "I blame my dad," he jokes of his independent streak. "Growing up in a family that ran a small business exposed me to what real life was like. At school all you care about is the next game of football. But when you start interacting with real people and what they're trying to achieve, you think: 'this is what it's really like.' I got a taste for that." Eight years later and Butler shows no sign of becoming satiated. "Bernard Mullaney, my works manager, has always kept me challenged and given me lots of freedom to try new things." It's an example of trust and empowerment that is going to have to come to the fore if companies are to conquer a shortage of ready-made managerial talent, according to Ernst & Young research. High-performing firms are more likely to offer broad job responsibilities, move employees across departments and give them the freedom to make decisions, the accountancy firm's Building a new talent model to boost growth report found. "I love working here because I can get involved in everything," says Butler. "Maybe I'm a secret control freak. I like to know what's going on and finding out is part of what keeps me engaged." And an interested employee is a loyal one. "I would like to be works manager, definitely," says Butler. "I want to be at the top. This place has always given me enough and I want to stay here. I can't waste the opportunity." Butler's words shame a manufacturing statistical anomaly. Just one in 10 manufacturing SMEs is prepared to give the male or female stars of tomorrow the time of day. The rest say an apprentice is too costly, time consuming and likely to jump ship for the first JLR or BAE who comes calling. These curmudgeons bring to mind a group of fisherman who refuse to cast their nets because they say the tide's all wrong or the water is too tepid and then complain that they never seem to land a decent catch. So think twice before you start singing the old sea shanties about college leavers who can't spell or bemoan the lack of talented kids being turned on to engineering. Even in today's tumultuous seas, there are plenty of pearls lying beneath the waves. You just need the courage to dive in and scoop them up with both hands. Butler has the last word. "People come out of school as blank canvasses," reflects Butler. "With manufacturing, we can teach people. In many cases, we're not building Nasa spaceships. If you pick the right one – someone with enthusiasm, if they can get out of bed and get in on time, and if they have an interest in what they are doing then it doesn't matter what level they are, you can get them involved." Do you have a rising star overseeing your shopfloor? Tell us about them by emailing mgosney@findlay.co.uk WM's guide to growing your own future star Skilled manufacturing employees remain firmly out of stock on the open market with 75% of firms suffering skills shortages, according to WM's People & Productivity survey 2013. With no sign of the shelves being replenished any time soon, WM offers a roll-your-sleeves-up, grow-your-own guide to beating the skills gap. 1 Go and see your local school Unless you have a fairy godmother on the board of governors then the local head teacher isn't going to have a sudden epiphany over the importance of careers in engineering. So it's down to you to convince young people that manufacturing is a place where they can prosper. Schools are eager for local businesses to come and talk to pupils about what kind of jobs they offer. You can register for a talk at www.inspiringthefuture.org. Or sign up as a STEM ambassador with sector skills council, Semta at www.stemnet.org. 2 Don't expect perfection You might remember being faster with fractions than Carol Vorderman and brimming with more ideas than Steve Jobs when you left school. Your boss at that time might beg to differ. Apprentices or graduates need careful nurturing before they develop into the finished article. Enlightened employers respond by investing in subsidiary college training both in frontline engineering degrees and softer management skills. Look for GCSE/ A-level or degree qualifications as proof candidates have the requisite standards in engineering, maths or English. And check your desire to unleash the hairdryer treatment when a teenager can't tell you the square root of 36 – the education system isn't the same as it was 30 years ago. Take your frustrations up with the authorities instead of the innocent apprentices. They might be able to show you how to do so using this new fangled thing called email you didn't learn about at school. 3 Recruit on attitude as well as aptitude Many manufacturers tell of a caustic encounter with a Kevin the teenager. All sweetness and light at interview only to descend into a sour-faced sulker on the shopfloor... if they decide to turn up at all that is. Weed out these time wasters by testing for attitude at interview stage. Look for examples of where the candidate has taken on responsibility or worked as a team in their CV. Or you can build in some psychometric tests to give you insight into how they'll interact with other employees. 4 Don't put them in a dark corner There's no point bringing in a prodigy only to put him or her to work sweeping the shopfloor and making the tea. Expose your recruit to all facets of the business and give them the chance to develop a variety of different skills. Take the time to get their feedback on what they made of each placement. How they might improve what they saw? Tap into their enthusiasm rather than extinguish it. The process will also make them feel valued and build confidence. 5 Protecting against poachers "I'll do all of the above and then they'll leave me," the pessimists out there will be howling. That's always a risk, but you can dramatically reduce the odds by showing your stars some love. Hand them fresh challenges, offer them training opportunities, link pay to performance and talk openly about how you see their career developing within the company. An employee worth their salt will find it very hard not to commit to a company offering all of that. And if you do lose your protégé at some point further down the line then try to be sanguine. If they've stayed 10 years and left a legacy of improvements for your business then you've both been winners. And there's always another raw talent ready to follow in their footsteps.