Global hygiene and health company Essity is a leading manufacturer of one-use products. It’s six manufacturing sites in the UK produce tissue paper, nappies, feminine care products and incontinence products.
As a well-established employer of 400 people, Essity’s flagship site in Prudhoe, Northumberland, manufactures well-known brands such as Velvet, Cushelle, Tork and own brand label products for UK customers like Asda.
In order to build upon its 50-year history as a leading employer in the North East, the company enlisted the help of specialist awarding organisation EAL to deliver a £200,000 on-site education centre to teach engineering and manufacturing qualifications in-line with the Engineering Technician Apprenticeship Standard.
Clare Stewart, Human Resources Manager, explained: “Back at the beginning of the year, we had a conversation, my team and I, about how difficult it would be to become an Employer Provider or how we could launch our own academy and look at a way of really bringing everything in house. Given the numbers that we talk about going through apprenticeships for this site, it seemed like a viable option, although a difficult one, a viable one.”
At the beginning of last year, the team at Essity’s Prudhoe site took the leap of faith to become the first Employer Provider in the North East.
Clare explained: “We began that journey and as part of that, we contacted EAL to say this is what we're looking to do.
“Really kindly, they were straight on to us and Paul Kerwin (the Regional Development Manager at EAL) spent a full day with us on site, really helping us scope out what it would look like. He was almost as passionate as we were for what we wanted to get to and was willing to do absolutely anything to support us.”
The Prudhoe site now teach and train their existing 39 apprentices and a new cohort of nine, from the on-site education centre. With plans to take on apprentices twice a year in September and March, a further 12 apprentices are due to start next Spring.
Clare added: “In an industry like this, there's a lot of technical aspects, but also, it's a dying art. We really have to invest in young people because we've got such an ageing workforce and I know manufacturing is the same.
“We're in a really remote location in the North East in rural Northumberland, which means we can't attract direct recruits, we can't attract people easily so we really need our own pipeline of people. It reached the point that we had to do something radical, because we just were just fighting against something that was never going to work for us. So this was the golden ticket.”
EAL supported the Prudhoe team helping to identify any gaps in the transition of their current apprentices from external colleges across to the new on-site facilities to continue the remainder of their Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications.
Clare said: “We’ve extended the workshop - we’ve got an electrical workshop in it as well - and made use of four unused rooms. All in all, it's a £200,000 investment that we've used on just the infrastructure and that's without the FTE headcount, the fact we’ve employed an additional three heads on top of that to support the actual delivery of the programme as well.
“Going forwards we plan to take two cohorts a year onto Level 2 courses and then look within those two cohorts, and almost cherry pick the ones we think we can move on to a Level 3, which is more of a technical programme.
“By doing this, the Level 2 will allow us to have a talent pipeline for the next two, three, four years without having a good external recruitment. That was the strategy behind doing it - we don't want to have to go externally to recruit at all, and the key measure of success for us will be when we look back in the next five years and whether all our recruits have been through our apprenticeship programme, whether that be process or technical.”
With full control, the site now delivers the same level of academic support and the same high level of academic qualification whilst tailoring the teaching and expertise around the subject of converting and paper making.
Clare said: “The regulations behind becoming an Employer Provider are that we have to reinvest any levy funding back into the apprenticeship scheme and that, for me, is our USP because we can't make money from doing this. Here we are committed to investing in young people from an early age.”
Although the company is taking the first year to focus on setting the academy up purely for their first two cohorts and completing their first Ofsted and audit, future plans include working with local councils around how to support and offer courses to external learners with the ambition to “provide training for anyone else around the North East that is within close proximity to the site.”
Clare explained how the academic offerings of EAL “complement” the apprenticeship standard.
“EAL’s Level 2 and the Level 3 academic qualifications complement the standard for our industry. It's a compliment and not a compromise because sometimes I think with academic study, you can compromise the standard because you want to focus your attention on the upskilling - the real practical activity that's required to be an engineer or to be a process operator versus the academic study,” she said. “That can almost be in conflict, but for us it's not. It allows you that opportunity to teach through the learning and the skills development, but also apply the academic side.”
Establishing close links with local schools helps to inform young people about the alternative options for post-16 education.
Clare said: “For the team that run the apprenticeship academy, that's part of their objective. They have to go out into the local schools on a monthly basis and take a piece of what we do to them, but also, bring them here so that they can see both sides.”
When summarising the support received from EAL, Clare said: “EAL has really supported us in this journey, and I would very much advocate anyone who wanted to do this, to reach out to EAL for that support because they've been fantastic in helping us through every step of the process.”
Although they are a manufacturing site and had some equipment already, EAL assisted with the creation of an environment for young people to learn, helping Essity realise the long-term benefits to taking this brave step of becoming an employer provider.
Clare concluded: “By the time we pressed submit on the application to become an Employer Provider, we were already way ahead of that curve because of the work EAL had supported us with.
“Without Paul Kerwin, I really don't think we would be in a position where we are now. We have the accreditation, and our first cohort of apprentices started with us last week. We look forward to reaping the rewards of opening the academy and developing our own talent with continued support from EAL.”