Seeking the simple skills solution

But, in Sheffield, there is hope. At Polestar’s gravure site in the city, a specialist in-house print college has been set up to give staff a chance to gain qualifications and broaden their skills and knowledge.

Polestar has taken a leap into the unknown with this project, as its dedicated ‘learning base’ is the first project of its kind in the UK. Peter Ryder, principal of Leeds College of Technology, gave it the thumbs-up when he visited in January 2007 and the college is assisting Polestar with its training.

Polestar Sheffield’s 480 staff have the chance to gain an industry recognised qualification in their chosen area of expertise, aided by eight computers, five laptops, laser printers, an interactive whiteboard and a dedicated broadband server available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Qualifications available at the £25,000 ($AU51.7,000) facility include print NVQs and Technical Certificates plus warehouse, distribution and storage training, business improvement techniques, performing manufacturing operations, ITQ training for business and even ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) courses for non-English speakers. It will deliver 130 NVQ Level 3s and 20 NVQ Level 2s. In addition, there will be 70 people undertaking a combination of NVQ Level 3 and Level 3 Technical Certificates. It is clear, then, that the training on offer is flexible; this is accentuated by the fact tutors work around shift patterns.

Darrin Stevens, group training director at Polestar, has worked with Leeds College of Technology and its business manager John Procter for several years.

Procter explains how the project took flight: We are now one of only four print colleges delivering hands-on training in England, with one or two delivering NVQs only in the workplace. We needed a strategy to ensure we could continue to provide services. The in-plant college was a flexible solution.

Stevens says that the in-plant college boasts several advantages. Our learners are able to get around the problem of day release. It’s about providing an easy access point that fits around the needs of the business and the lives of our staff.

Software-assisted learning
Technology is helping staff to do that. Polestar’s Print Dynamics software was developed by Stevens four years ago. The £250,000 ($AU517,000) project, funded by the company, is seen by Stevens as one of the keys to the college’s success.

The interactive package allows users to explore all the main aspects of printing, including digital, gravure and litho, with 3D graphics and videos to help the user get a visual impression of the printing processes. It is free for anyone to use and is available to staff online.

Nicky Bunfield, HR director at the Polestar Sheffield site, adds that the software is about making printing sexy. The college has even made it available on iPods and laptops. It has also recently been put to use in schools as part of the PrintIT! initiative, which aims to raise the profile of the print industry among children and teenagers.

We made the software free because we believe in upskilling the entire industry, says Stevens. Everyone should be able to benefit from it and hopefully it will help attract some much-needed young blood into the trade.

Technology has played an important part in the learning culture of the college and video cameras are provided to encourage learners to record their working experiences. Students are encouraged to film problems they have encountered and discuss them with the class, says Bunfield. It’s a great way for them to learn as they go and help other students to learn from their actions.

Leeds College of Technology’s early adoption of technology and web-based learning was one the reasons Procter was able to follow through with the in-plant project. At first, other colleges thought we were mad to offer online learning but, in order to successfully complete this project, that head start has proved crucial, says Procter.

Despite the technological push, Bunfield is keen to stress that the web is just a tool. When a company is trying to focus on lean manufacturing, it helps if you can employ technology to save time and aid learning. We’ve had great results with the technology we use, but it’s not the be all and end all.

Stevens is equally pragmatic when it comes to his expectations for the college. He says that, in any organisation, you can expect 20% of staff to be keen to get on board with training and another 20% to be completely uninterested. It is the remaining indecisive 60% that he hopes to target.

A culture of training

He adds: People can be against training for a number of reasons, be it home life, learning difficulties or just confidence. By bringing college learning onto our premises, we hope that word of mouth will help create a training culture and persuade people to get on board.

Stevens’ understanding of the value of training originates from personal experience. After being made redundant three times, he knows that, even with experience, it is difficult to find work without possessing the right qualifications. He sees training as a way to encourage staff loyalty and ensure the business runs efficiently and can think on its feet.

Chris Stott, a print lecturer at Leeds College of Technology, agrees: It’s about creating a new learning culture and we have had to adapt to meet the industries needs.

Polestar Sheffield’s project is still in its infancy, but so far Stevens says the college has proved to be a success. He sees the college as an ideal way to meet the government’s requirements to upskill the UK’s aging workforce, which ranks low compared to other European countries. His goal now is to keep the project alive and build on its success.

The company might have the resources to make this kind of project a reality, unlike others in the industry, but at least it’s putting the money to good use. The feeling is that the industry as a whole now needs to pull in the same direction and make training a major priority.

Polestar Sheffield’s print college has been universally welcomed and union Unite has even lent its support to the venture, although it warns that time is running out for companies that don’t invest in training.

Russell Morgan, regional learning manager at Unite, says: The in-plant project is a great forward-thinking idea. Unite are always pleased to see print staff given training opportunities. The industry has to clock-in and rise to the training challenge, otherwise businesses will soon find themselves clocking-out.

Richard Bloxam, print industry champion at Proskills, also sings the college’s praises. Proskills welcomes Leeds College and Polestar’s partnership to provide an in-plant training centre, he says. Proskills’ research confirms that the printing industry prefers in-company training. Innovative ways need to be found to keep print training in step with fast-moving industry practice.

Peter Ryder, principal of Leeds College of Technology, adds: Our classroom on the shop floor has real benefits all round, with relevant, responsive training provided by experienced professionals. This project illustrates how government funding can reach where it’s needed.

Peter Alder, director at training company Peplow, voices his support for the project, but believes other areas need to be looked at as well. I am impressed with Polestar’s scheme as it seems like an efficient and workable way to deliver training, he says. I urge that management training is looked at, though. The recent 2008 Peplow Report of UK Competencies revealed that the UK print and media supply chain’s level of competency compares unfavourably to the UK average.

Courses 130 NVQ level 3s and 20 NVQ level 2s and level 3 Technical Certificates
Sponsors Kodak, Sun Chemical
Project manager Darrin Stevens
Course provider Leeds College of Technology
Kit Eight computers, five laptops, laser printers, an interactive whiteboard and dedicated broadband available 24/7

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