A large portion of dealers and suppliers in the mobility sector recognise a skills gap at all ends of the supply chain and it is concerning businesses about their own future and that of the wider market. But some companies have taken the initiative and are investing heavily in youth to close the skills gap and secure their future. One of these is Handicare. Richard Whitehouse, director of operations at the stairlift supplier, shares his views on the importance of apprentices to the industry and what the firm is doing to ensure the longevity of its trade.
What is the extent of the skills gap in our industry?
Manufacturing and engineering firms like Handicare have been facing a skills shortage and taking steps to create sustainable workforces for some time. The skills gap is not unique to our sector; it’s a problem for a large number of firms across the UK and there are a lot of great initiatives in place which aim to attract young people into the industry.
However, companies such as ours have an important role to play highlighting sector-specific opportunities and challenges to the wider public and policymakers, which we hope to do through our participation in this year’s Parliamentary Review. Our marketplace is growing, there are more competitors for the available talent and increasing demand for the products and services we provide. Without action, the skills gap will continue to be a real problem.
What is the importance and advantage of hiring apprentices over experienced staff?
One of the many advantages of hiring apprentices is the fact that they have no ‘baggage’ or bad habits learned elsewhere. They’re also willing to learn and keen to impress in their first workplace. That’s not to say that those with experience aren’t also willing and keen, but sometimes apprentices can ask questions and bring a fresh perspective and new ideas.
Do you run any initiatives or programmes designed to bring youth into your fold?
Investment in people is a huge part of Handicare’s strategy for the future and the company is working with the UK’s leading organiser of paid student work placements and graduate internships, Step, to identify young talent. Last year, the company welcomed its first design interns and a graduate production engineer to the team at Kingswinsford. In addition, a new apprenticeship programme has also seen two new recruits join the company to get their first experience of working in a factory.
Both spend one day a week learning business ‘theory’ at nearby LEMA Academy and the rest of the time getting to know the different roles and departments within Handicare. We have also had great success with an apprenticeship programme for engineers working in the field in the past and we are planning to reinstate this later in 2018 as we build capacity to meet future demand.
How do we encourage more young people to join the mobility industry on all ends of the mobility supply chain?
The younger generation want more than a place to work and money in the bank. They want to feel good about the place they work, and they want their skills to benefit a cause; social impact is becoming more of a necessity. This is great news for the mobility industry as we are changing lives positively every day. Ensuring that employees understand the role each of them plays in Handicare’s ‘making everyday life easier’ story is very important to us, and this carries through to our recruitment activities where it is always well received.
By focusing on our industry’s social impact we will attract those millennials who are looking for employers who are making the world a better place, from the manufacturing end of the supply chain right through to the people selling, installing and maintaining the life-changing equipment they produce.
Are there any challenges associated with apprentices? For example, do some businesses take advantage of them?
In our experience, the principle challenge is to maintain their thirst for development and to stretch them, while at the same time protecting them — allowing them the opportunity to fail and learn. They’re often far more capable than they think they are and giving them the self-confidence to stick at a job and succeed can sometimes be demanding!