Ransomes Jacobsen is tackling the skills shortage

Some of the first, second and third year apprentices at Ransomes Jacobsen in Ipswich.

Some of the first, second and third year apprentices at Ransomes Jacobsen in Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

Major investment in apprenticeships at Ipswich firm

Ransomes Jacobsen third year apprentice Sam Howard.

Ransomes Jacobsen third year apprentice Sam Howard. - Credit: Archant

When Simon Rainger joined Ransomes Jacobsen four years ago, something struck him about the age profile of the workforce at the company’s Ipswich factory.

There were many workers with 25 years of service (or more) behind them and many who had been with the company for up to five years, but with comparatively few people in between.

While the Ipswich operation is now established as the European headquarters of the United States-based Ransomes Jacobsen company – part of the multi-industry group Textron Inc – its recent success has come after a lengthy period of change, including a downsizing of the workforce.

This is probably the biggest single factor behind the age profile noted by Mr Rainger but, as he points outs, it is a trend by no means confined to Ransomes Jacobsen.

Ransomes Jacobsen third year apprentice Jack Gleed.

Ransomes Jacobsen third year apprentice Jack Gleed. - Credit: Archant

“There has been significant under-investment in manufacturing across the developed west over the last 20 years,” he says. “There is now effectively a huge hole in terms skills shortages.”

The result is that a growing number of manufacturers are finding their growth prospects being constrained by a shortage of skills, an inevitable problem as long-serving staff reach retirement age but one which is the more pressing as a result of the desire to attract more high-value manufacturing back to Britain from lower cost economies elsewhere in the world.

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Until the launch of a new programme three years ago, it was around 20 years since the completion of the last apprenticeship at Ransomes (as it was then known – the company was acquired by Textron in 1998 and subsequently rebranded as Ransomes Jacobsen).

The fact that the individual concerned is now a production manager – one of three former apprentices currently in such a role at the company – underlines the potential value of apprenticeships to an employer and the scope for career progression for apprentices themselves.

Launching a new apprenticeship programme, says Mr Rainger, represented not only a way of replacing the significant number of skilled staff approacing retirement but also an opportunity to use those staff as mentors to play an important role in developing the next generation before their skills were lost to the business.

“A lot of our more senior staff have taken on mentorship roles, which has provided a different dynamic compared with their every-day work,” he says. “It is also positive for people to see the company investing in the future, and ensuring that the skills they have are retained.”

A total of 18 apprentices are currently in training with Ransomes Jacobsen as a result of the first three years of the programme and a further six to eight will be taken on in the next round of recruitment which is currently in progress.

The length of an apprenticeship depends to some extent on the capabilities of the individual but three to four years is likely to be typical. The first cohort of appentices will be graduating next month – an occasion which will be celebrated, says Mr Rainger – and it is hoped that some will progress to higher level qualifications such as HND or even degree level if they have potential for supervisory and managerial roles.

However, one issue the company faces in recruiting new apprentices is that it is rather less well known as a local employer than was the case 25 years ago.

There is, says Mr Rainger, a perception that “we just assemble lawnmowers”, which fails to recognise the opportunities Ransomes Jacobsen can offer.

To address this, the company will be heavily promoting its name, and what it manufacturers in Ipswich, in the run up to, and at, this year’s Suffolk Show – on June 1 and 2 – where it is taking significant stand space. Some of the current apprentices will be on the stand to talk to the young people and their parents about the opportunities that exist at the company.

“We need skills sets to add value and to reduce costs and if we focus on these things we can remain competitive and keep jobs in the UK,” says Mr Rainger.

“I don’t view our apprenticeship scheme as anything but essential,” he adds. “If we want to be successful we have to give the apprentices opportunities to be successful.

“Taking on an apprentice does not yield immediate benefits but in the long term the benefits far out-weigh the costs.”