Making sure vocational learning remains a clear priority for local employers was one of a number of challenges In-Comm Training had to overcome in what has been a year like no other.


Bekki Phillips, Chief Operating Officer, explains how the business pivoted to protect the future of 750 apprentices and the future skills requirements of hundreds of local firms.


Every business sector has been subject to massive upheaval this year, as the full impact of Covid-19 continues to ravage economies all over the world. 


A lot of the headlines have been rightly focused on the markets worst hit, with travel and retail taking the brunt, followed closely by aerospace and an automotive industry that will produce less than a million cars for the first time since 2009.


The world of vocational training, not mentioned by many, has had its own list of struggles to contend with over the last eight months, as it came to terms with companies cutting budgets and delaying plans to recruit apprentices.


In-Comm Training, which operates three technical academies at Aldridge, Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury, has seen first-hand the massive changes required to protect the next generation of learners from being cut adrift from their courses and, in many respects, their first steps on the career ladder.


“We had to pivot the business nearly 360 degrees to ensure training didn’t stop overnight,” pointed out Bekki Phillips, Chief Operating Officer.


“Whilst we knew it was coming, we still had to execute this decision with just two days’ notice of Boris Johnson standing up at one of the Downing Street briefings. It was a monumental team effort and I’m delighted to say we pulled it off thanks to the hard work, innovation, flexibility and brilliance of our workforce.”


The majority of the apprenticeship learning was switched to Zoom or Microsoft teams, with introductory training given to all 750 apprentices on how to use these platforms.


Trainers worked through the night to transform the learning from being face-to-face and in an industrial setting into virtual courses that still delivered the same theoretical expertise and knowledge that they could store and then apply when they returned to the academies.


In-Comm Training also took it one step further. It wasn’t just about doing its bit with the training; it was understanding it had young people who were vulnerable and going through unprecedented times. 

This meant the company asked all of its trainers to go beyond their day jobs, providing an element of pastoral care that included regular video calls and the opportunity for learners to chat through any issues they were having – both inside and outside of the apprenticeship.


“I still can’t believe what the team achieved,” continued Bekki, who was recently named as one of the Top 100 Manufacturing Professionals by The Manufacturer magazine.


“During the first lockdown we successfully delivered over 2000 virtual lessons, supported more than 750 apprenticeships and engaged with 200 West Midlands businesses, not to mention helping to upskill 500 furloughed employees in 25 different disciplines.”


She went on to add, “Importantly, we ensured that over 200 apprentices could finish their courses and get their qualifications they richly deserved. If we had stayed closed and delayed their learning, they could have lost their jobs and had their first step on the career ladder pushed backwards.”


Introducing the Skills Pledge


As the pandemic worsened and the economic hit started to take shape, the management team at In-Comm Training were receiving a lot of stories about companies letting their apprentices go, some with just a few months left to run.


This was a major red flag for the business and potentially could have put back the recent surge in vocational learning for years, maybe decades. That’s without looking at the skills gap implications for industry. 


Bekki continued: “We knew we had to do something and acted quickly to launch a new campaign urging companies to sign-up to our ‘Skills Pledge’, which asked firms to commit to supporting apprentices, raising the profile of vocational learning and ‘upskilling’ their workforces.”


‘Powering the Engine’ was put in place for a year to ensure the business world does not sacrifice the investment and time it has channelled into developing the talent they will desperately need to help reignite the economy as it recovers.


The three pledges for the campaign included:


• Apprenticeship Ambassadors - the company and an apprentice will give up one hour of their time to participate in promoting the benefits of apprenticeships 


• Skills Support for the Workforce - a commitment to put some of its staff through upskilling courses over the next 12 months


• Apprenticeship Recruitment – to recruit one or more apprentices every year


Companies taking part receive a specific incentive depending on the pledge they take and these range from a free skills audit and report, to free Learning Mentor courses and 5% off the cost of upskilling courses (when they cost over £500).


For every firm that signs up, In-Comm Training committed to manufacturing five visors for the NHS or local care homes.


Over 75 companies have already taken one or more of the pledges, including Brandauer, CHH Conex, Glassworks Hounsell, Gotronic, Holbourne Industrial Plastics, Kiyokuni Europe, MET Recruitment, The Binding Site and Valen Fittings.


Moving into 2021


Whilst 2020 will be remembered mainly for the way In-Comm Training changed its approach to support employers and apprentices, it also sadly saw the passing of Geoff Jones, who had run the company with friend and colleague Colin Mills since 1997.


Over 200 people turned up to line the streets outside the firm’s Aldridge academy and the church in Wednesfield to pay their respects to a ‘gentle giant’ who helped grow one of the most successful training firms in the West Midlands.


Geoff’s passing has reinforced the management team’s determination to ensure In-Comm Training remain one of the UK’s leading providers and this will see it deliver on ambitious expansion plans for 2021, including the firm’s involvement in the Kickstart scheme and development of new training sessions that will help employers bounce back from Covid-19.


Bekki concluded, “Vocational learning has withstood everything that has been thrown at it this year and we are now firmly focused on how we can help companies from all sectors recover and look at how we can enable their growth.


“This could be through apprentices, upskilling staff in future technologies and delivering consultancy where it is needed most. We’ve galvanised an army of experts on different topics and are in an ideal position to help our employers make the most of the economic recovery as and when it arrives.”


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