MGN Insights – Building for the future

Sunderland-based Unipres is an automotive components manufacturer, producing lightweight, high tensile-strength steel parts for Nissan, Renault and Honda. The company has been operating from the North East since 1986 and employs 1400 people.

As a Tier One supplier to such well-known OEMs requires a highly skilled, highly motivated and committed workforce and Unipres has spent time, effort and investment in making sure the staff are equipped – in appropriate machinery and skills – to meet the demands placed upon them.

John Cruddace, operations director of Unipres talks to MGN about their new Academy

John Cruddace, Operations Director at Unipres

Four years ago Unipres recognised the fact that in certain parts of the company there were a lot of more mature people who were due to retire within ten years or so. And these tended to be in the skilled areas of the business. John Cruddace, who was part of the review team at the time, takes up the story: “We already had a skills shortage but this was compounding the situation. The solution was to increase the number of apprentices into the business.

“We’ve always had apprentices in the business, right from when we started in 1986. I started as an apprentice, as did most of the management team. So we decided to take on 15 technical apprentices and we’ve continued to take this number each year since 2014.”

These apprentices are in technical areas such as press and facilities maintenance but Unipres is now also bringing in apprentices into other back office areas such as production control and HR. As John explains: “This means we have currently have 85 people going through the apprenticeship programme and we’re now in the process of recruiting for the next batch of apprentices who will start with us in September.”

Last year the company opened the Unipres Academy, the aim of which is to provide training to those people (mainly young) who have had no exposure to manufacturing before. Working in partnership with Sunderland City College the Academy offers sector-based training. The idea is to replicate exactly what the company has on the shopfloor so that all the systems it has are the same.

“We take about 15 unemployed people every month,” says John Cruddace, “all from Tyne & Wear, and we give them three week’s hands-on training in the Academy and then a week’s work experience in the factory. They are then guaranteed an interview. And I’m delighted to say that 80 per cent of these have been given full employment with an 85 per cent retention rate which is fantastic.”

The next step is for the Academy to upskill the current workforce. “The plan is that, once the current production apprentices have finished their training they will stand in for the experienced staff who will then be freed up to do a Level 2 qualification themselves. In the longer term we’d like to have our own technical apprentices being trained in the Academy too and only use the College for the academic side of things. But this is something for the future.”

The Academy is within a mile of the main plant and housed within a site with a number of business units and is owned by Sunderland City Council. Unipres rents three major units on the site and John is quick to acknowledge the support the Council has provided.

“We needed a power upgrade so we could run our facilities there and this was carried out by the Council. So the major investment we needed to put in for the Academy was in the equipment we put in; we have a fully operational assembly facility. And also have a fully operational robot facility so people can get hands-on experience of operating this and we also use this for additional robot training for our technical people.”

Sensibly, the company has trained its own staff to be the trainers in the Academy who have all gained training qualifications to do so.

As part of the forthcoming National Apprenticeships Week Unipres is holding a series of events that will give people of all ages a clear understanding of what the Academy (and the company) is all about, how they do things and how the Academy might benefit any potential apprentice.

John adds: “We’re involved with the Industrial Cadets initiative and are also STEM Ambassadors, so we regularly go out to schools to show them what manufacturing and engineering is all about. This not only gets young people interested in manufacturing but it also raises the profile of the company. Even though we’re one of the biggest employers in the area not everyone knows who we are.”

Thanks in part to the success of the Nissan Qashqai the company is currently going through its busiest period ever. The Juke replacement is also coming along and Unipres will be involved in trials for this later in the year and that of the replacement to the Qashqai which is also in the pipeline.

“Renault and Honda in Europe have also recently increased their production volumes significantly, so we’re running at maximum capacity at the moment,” John comments. “In preparation for this we’re planning further expansion requiring substantial investment in both plant and facilities to cope with these extra volumes. But the workforce is prepared and we know they will step up to the challenge.”