Ten years ago, Tata Chemicals Europe (then operating as Brunner Mond) identified a considerable challenge looming on its horizon. A significant proportion of its skilled workforce of process operators would soon enter retirement, taking with them an abundance of bespoke knowledge and experience.
There was a clear commercial incentive for the company to take action. But, as Vicky Gibbons, employee development manager at the company explains, this also presented a huge opportunity to increase job satisfaction and career potential among the workforce.
“The company was totally committed to bringing about change for the benefit of the bottom line and the workforce,” says Mr Gibbons. “Opportunities to rethink an entire programme of training and development don’t come around too often!” And so the Operating Technician Development Programme, which continues to this day, was born.
Before 2001, operating technicians and process operators — individuals schooled in the oversight of distinct components of the industrial process — typically focused on a single role, such as the efficient operation of distillers or compressors. While encouraging the development of true expertise, the system lacked flexibility, with holidays and sick leave frequently leaving holes in the smooth running of the business’ two Cheshire facilities. The prospect of widespread retirement across an ageing generation of workers kick-started a revolutionary programme of on-the-job and classroom learning for younger employees and new recruits.
The programme’s central objective was to see all process operators become skilled in three of the 16 types of operating technician role. The traditional ‘one person, one job’ approach was over. In addition, modernising safety, quality and environmental management systems had created an increasingly regulated working environment that demanded a more defined, validated and documented approach to training.
Workers were quick to embrace the programme, attracted by the prospect of securing additional qualifications and pursuing the associated salary enhancements and employability benefits. As well as learning new operational skills, workers were taught about the physics and chemistry that lie behind them, aiding the smooth deployment of new technologies at the sites and increasing the first-line fault-finding capability of the overall workforce.
Over the past decade, the programme has been refined and enhanced, becoming a mandatory requirement for all new process operators from 2005 onwards and being cited by many new joiners as one of the principal reasons for taking a job at the business. Indeed, it takes pride of place in Tata Chemicals Europe’s recruitment advertising, pitched as ‘our commitment to you’.
Statistical and anecdotal feedback on the programme has also built up over time. Over 40 percent of the company’s current workforce has been through the programme. When the company’s Winnington site reorganised its Operations team, 57 percent of those newly appointed to leadership roles had been through the programme, with 30 percent having only been in the job for five years or less. A number of individuals have continued to move up the career ladder to first-line manager positions, such as shift manager and plant area leader. “This kind of career progression simply would not have been possible before,” notes Ms Gibbons. “The programme has given individual employees far greater opportunity both in their current roles and their future prospects.”
In 2009, the programme was awarded an ‘Investors in People’ award by Chemicals Northwest.