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"Training Pipeline is blocked" says Pump Supremo

Dave Harvey | 13:16 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A lathe at SPP Pumps, Coleford, Glos

 

Terry Newby knows his pumps.

They are very big. Very strong. When an oil rig catches fire, it's one of his that puts it out.

Terry is Operations Director at SPP Pumps, one of those hidden gems of British manufacturing. Tucked away in a quiet yard in the Forest of Dean, it is home to highly skilled engineers who make some of the most respected pumps in the business.

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They've carved out a niche, like so many great west country firms, by going bespoke. "We don't sell pumps," Terry smiles, "we sell solutions. We make custom-engineered pumps for our customers to fit their precise needs. If you could buy our pumps in a box, we'd be dead in the water."

Terry shows me shelves of raw material, iron and steel by the bar. Material doesn't come any more raw than this. When they leave, every pipe, every dial, every rivet has been welded and lathed and machined here by hand. 170 engineers work here, in what is a pretty jovial atmosphere.

The firm has grown over the last ten years, building to a turnover of some £50m from about half that in 2002. As oil prices rise, their orders are growing too. When oil is high, drilling firms decide to upgrade their fire protection.

Terry Newby, Operations Director of SPP Pumps, Coleford Glos

 

So far, it could be the setting for a ministerial visit. Vince Cable would extol the virtues of British engineering expertise, the strengths of an export economy, the need to "rebalance", with more of this, and less reliance on shopping.

But if politicians came here, they would get more than they bargained for. In a corner of the factory, I met up with a number of Gloucestershire manufacturers, and all had sharp words for politicians - of all colours.

 

First, the old story of Whitehall's left and right hands. SPP Pumps usually takes on new apprentices every year. But in 2011, they won't be hiring. Why not? Because the government is planning to raise retirement ages. And you don't have to be a pumping expert to know that if fewer people are coming out of the top of the pipe, you can't let as many in at the bottom.

Second, I hear about red tape. Rosemary Robinson runs a firm near Stroud, called Arc Energy. She needed a welder. "The only qualified welding engineer I could find was from outside the EU, and he couldn't be bothered with the immigration paperwork."

So why are there no home grown welders? Colin Hygate, whose firm Green Fuels have designed and made the world's first DIY biodiesel, is with us too. He lists the skills that are going.
"Millers, turners, welders, machinists - it's the technician level we're lacking. And there's no sign of more people coming through the system."

Lathes in action at SPP Pumps

Colin and Rosemary think schools could do more. Manufacturing, they complain, is far cooler, far more interesting than careers advisors realise.

But what, I ask them, of the government's much trumpetted push for more apprentices?

"Do they mean retailing and hairdressing, or actual manufacturing?" Don Burgess speaks for the Federation of Small Businesses in Gloucestershire, and he's sceptical. He points out that Tesco and MacDonalds have recently offered thousands of new apprenticeships.

"They might be jobs, they might even be ok jobs," he complains, "but they aren't actually making anything. Who's going to make the money that we can spend in the supermarkets and fast food joints?"

It's a very familiar tale. Over the last four days I've seen some stunning examples of what is made in the west. Tomorrow world technology at Airbus. Astonishing planemaking at GKN. Solid belief in making everything here at Numatic international, and then Terry and his team crafting pumps for the world in the Forest of Dean. But you know what? It all hangs on skills. And it seems we are still desperately short of them.


Terry Slater, SW Director of the Engineering Employers Federation

 


Terry Slater, the SW Director of the Engineering Employers Federation, hears this every day.

"We have a real shortage of skilled people, even after a recession. If we don't tackle these challenges, the recovery is going to be slowed down, if it comes at all."

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