'We're really competing with secondary and tertiary education for our workers - trying to offer an attractive alternative to the official school view that all able pupils should go on to university,' says Peter Bonavia, human resource adviser at BP Chemicals' Saltend plant just outside Hull.
'Instead we believe you can learn practical skills and pick up qualifications at the same time.'
He is speaking of the Quartz programme of three-and four-year Modern Apprenticeships, for which the plant has won a regional award. Like many big companies, BP shows a real commitment to training and in 1996 its Port Talbot plant was a national winner.
Here it was not a matter of training new recruits fresh from school, but of re-skilling almost the entire workforce. 'We realised that to be truly competitive we needed to revolutionise work practices,' says Sue Jewell, Port Talbot personnel manager. 'We wanted to tackle the traditional demarcation between process operators and craftsmen.' This was an ambitious task, inevitably involving all 205 process operators and 90 craftsmen. 'Instead of teams of craftsmen responsible for maintenance and teams of operators responsible for production, we wanted just one big team of multi-skilled workers,' she says.
Saltend has also been trying to rid itself of old-fashioned demarcation practices and here Bonavia believes its apprentices are valuable ambassadors to the rest of the workforce. 'Quartz trainees come out saying, "Although you trained me to be an engineer, if you haven't got an engineering job, I can do anything else that's going",' he explains. 'They put pressure on the older staff to change their attitudes.' The impact of a shift to multi-skilling speaks for itself. 'Most maintenance is now done by the shift teams themselves,' says Jewell. 'Not only is this more efficient, but it reduces breakdowns because operators are much more inclined to act early when they are responsible for any repairs.' As a result Port Talbot has seen a 60% reduction in overtime thanks to a surge in productivity, and absenteeism has halved as workers find their jobs more challenging.
Of course neither scheme comes cheap - the Port Talbot programme involved 150,000 hours of training for some 300 operators and craftsmen, and the employment of 15 trainers. It also required classrooms and computer-based training systems.
At Saltend, Bonavia sees the apprentices as a long-term investment. They spend four days a week on site and 'they do produce something,'
he says. 'But that's not really the objective. Instead we see it as equipping them with the range of skills that we're going to need over a much longer period.'
But what about the security of the investment? Isn't training an expensive way of providing skilled workers for rivals to poach? Bonavia admits there is always a risk, but he says this is actually much lower than outsiders might think. 'Last year out of a workforce of 1,300, we only had two resignations - training is actually very low-risk and in practice it encourages loyalty.' This is because the programme is highly-respected locally and fosters positive views of BP. To illustrate this point, Bonavia confidently expects some 600 applicants for next year's 15 places. He adds that the handful of qualified trainees who do leave tend to go elsewhere within BP, so even then the company reaps the overall benefit.
'We rank training very high in our list of priorities,' he says.'Clearly we're in a very technical area where safety and environmental responsibility are crucial. You simply have to have staff you can rely on and training is vital in establishing that trust.'
Jewell agrees. 'By giving our workers greater skills and responsibility, we've seen immediate improvements on the balance sheet,' she says. 'A good training programme boosts morale and can produce real returns.'.