Find out what Andrew Esson's son Lucas thought about work experience with dad at the bottom of this page >>
When it comes to bridging the skills gap, Andrew Esson knows a thing or two.
A former North East Business Executive of the Year, he turned around the fortunes of ContiTech Beattie – later Dunlop Oil & Marine – through a focused commitment to upskilling and apprenticeships during his six years at he helm.
In 2011, then, he bought Quick Hydraulics, a specialist in hydraulic systems and engineering – and gradually forged another success story.
“At the time, the firm had 14 employees and a turnover of £2.5m, but it had reached a plateau and I realised it could do much more,” he said.
In typical style, Esson set about expanding the North Shields business, now on track to report a turnover of £4.1m. During his time there the team has also grown to 32, including two graduates and six apprentices, working across a variety of departments.
“While its ideal to bring experienced people into the business, there’s a shortage – particularly when it’s specialist business,” he said.
“So you’ve got to be prepared to train people up.”
While Quick Hydraulics has been able to recruit competent candidates, however, fewer are materialising than Esson would like.
Through his involvement in a jaw-dropping number of business groups – the EEF skills group, the Manufacturing Advisory Service’s North East Advisory Board, the Subsea Executive Committee, and the skills and resource group of Subsea North East, to name a few – he’s also seen firsthand how the skills issue is affecting the industry across the board.
“I realised we have a bit of perfect storm when it comes to skills in North East manufacturing,” he said.
“The existing workforce is getting older and approaching retirement. Meanwhile, we have a lost generation of school kids who are encouraged to do anything but manufacturing or engineering.”
That’s understandable, he added, since many have watched manufacturing firms shutting down in the 70s and 80s, and current students’ parents and grandparents may still associate the industry with dirty and poorly paid jobs.
The net result of the misconception, however, is that companies are now finding it difficult to recruit.
“In the old days, bright young people might leave school at 16, do an apprenticeship and work their way up - the most striking example of that probably being Mike Matthews of Nifco,” Esson said.
“That’s going to happen less these days, with the bright young kids just being encouraged to go to sixth form college and university.
“We need to change that, particularly now we have higher apprenticeships, which provide a fantastic opportunity to help young people reach a professional qualification on a debt-free basis.”
Esson was one of the first big names of the North East business community to throw his weight behind the Journal’s Proud to Back Apprenticeships campaign.
The dire need for a new generation of skilled workers in the industry, however, got him thinking that Proud to Back Work Experience would be a useful precursor.
Having seen for himself how placements can go wrong – one lad spending at week at ContiTech Beattie admitted his real passion lay in hairdressing – the key was to make the experience as relevant and inspiring as it can be.
“I think it’s critical young people think about their careers early on,” Esson said. “Otherwise they can end up studying, going to university, applying for any job going because they haven’t had any guidance and then getting turned down.
“I think it’s particularly important now that youngsters have to pay for their studies.”
Part of the problem, Esson believes, is that students and teachers don’t regularly come into contact with those in engineering or manufacturing, in the way they would, say, police officers or doctors.
He’s therefore calling for teachers to be given the equivalent of work placements themselves, introducing them to the fundamentals of industry.
Esson, a governor at Monkseaton Middle School, also chairs the North Tyneside Manufacturers Forum, which is following a similar line of thinking through a partnership with North Tyneside Learning Trust, now looking at improving work experience opportunities while helping raise awareness of the issue with teachers and governors.
Quick Hydraulics has likewise supported an initiative called Primary Engineer, which serves to introduce the world of engineering to both very young children and their teachers.
“You’ve got to walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” said Esson, who, of course, provides regular work experience opportunities at his company.
In each case, candidates will be given an interview.
It’s not, Esson admits, particularly rigorous, but does give the company some idea of the calibre of the student, while giving said student experience of what it will be like to apply for a job.
Applications are also filtered through TDR training, which has an arm that works with schools.
Successful students, then, will usually be given week-long placements, involving a general introduction to the company, before being placed in the design department.
There they will experience everything from specialist software to taking part in real, ongoing projects, like retrieving prices when quoting for a job.
“I think they come away from it having learned a lot and the feedback we’ve had from parents is that it’s been really useful for them,” Esson said.
“It also creates an increased enthusiasm and interest in engineering.”
The latest successful work experience candidate, indeed, was Esson’s own son, Lucas, who, being due to choose his GCSE options this year, has been leaning towards engineering.
“Whether he chooses engineering or not, I’d want him to do so with some knowledge about it,” Esson explained. I think my role will undoubtedly influence Lucas, but I’m trying to ensure that will be with a small ‘i’.
“If he turns around and says he wants to be a chef or a doctor or anything else, that’s fine as long as he knows what it will involve.
“My main objective is to make sure he makes informed choices.”
'I was surprised to find out that it is tiring...'
My name is Lucas Esson, aged 13, and I attend The Morley Academy.
I am interested in science and maths and I aspire to a career which involves physics, engineering, business and management.
I have reached the age where I now must choose my GCSE options, and therefore I have recently thought a lot about my future and what I want to do as a job.
At my school there has been some careers advice for people like me who have found it hard to choose their options, but the teachers’ main focus has been on trying to help us choose our future academic options, rather than jobs.
Since I haven’t yet decided on a career, I wanted to try work experience to gain a real insight into a subject that I’m interested in: engineering.
I told my dad this and he suggested I did a week’s work experience at his company, Quick Hydraulics.
There, I have experienced what it’s like to work as a team in a real-life manufacturing environment.
I have assisted at the start of the process where business deals are secured, and I have also helped to design multiple hydraulic components on CAD (Computer Aided Design) that will go into a hydraulic machine. As well as this, I have witnessed one of the final processes of the production line: manufacturing.
Through talking to my parents, I’d had an idea about what work would be like, but didn’t fully know what to expect.
Now, I’ve had a taste of doing it, I would say it was around as hard as I thought it would be – although I was surprised to find out that it is tiring and it made me appreciate how decent school hours are compared to work hours. I also realised that, at work, when everyone communicates, it’s easier to get jobs done – team working is a good value to have in the workplace.
Having done it, I would now recommend work experience.
Many young people my age would probably pass up a work experience opportunity. However, I feel that it is very rewarding and beneficial, as you get a real insight into what work is like and you might find a job role that suits you.
It can also provide valuable experience that might help when applying for university or a job.
For me, work experience at Quick Hydraulics has boosted my aspirations for the future and I have now decided my GCSE options, as well as knowing what I want to do when I grow up. Work Experience will only aid your confidence and improve your future, so get involved!