Building SURE foundations


08 December 2020
Apprentice Engineer Kieran Sherlock with Senior Industrial Engineer Andy Gillies Apprentice Engineer Kieran Sherlock with Senior Industrial Engineer Andy Gillies

Against a background of continued growth since its launch, Merseyside-based industrial refrigeration specialist SURE Solutions is striking a balance of expanding for both the short and the long term. ACR Journal spoke to Managing Director Garry Shaw and Operations Director Craig Shaw to find out more about its flexible apprenticeship programme.

It has been five years since the SURE Solutions business was set up from a kitchen table and from the outset, apprentices were always going to play a big part in helping the organisation meet its growth ambitions. 

Managing Director Garry Shaw is a big advocate. He said “Our rapid expansion has given us the opportunity to invest heavily in the skills and training of our team, and the future of the business in our apprenticeship programme. Over 85% of our workforce started their careers as apprentices, myself included, so we know they are a big part of how the business will sustain itself in the future.”

SURE now has a full pipeline of apprentices in front line engineering roles and in back office business operations roles, working with four different colleges in the North West, North East and Midlands to provide robust development programmes. 

Craig Shaw of SURE Solutions

Craig Shaw heads up the apprenticeship programme and, having initially completed his engineering apprenticeship with Unilever in Port Sunlight, knows the value that apprentices can bring. He said: “We want to position ourselves as a progressive company in all aspects of our work. Our apprentices bring so many fresh ideas to the table that can push us all on. It’s almost like they keep us on our toes and consider problems from different angles. Literally and figuratively, they are the future of our business. I see a large part of my job as providing them with appropriate development opportunities and ensure they are suitably challenged.”

Mature apprentices
SURE has recruited three mature apprentices into the RACHP programme and feels that this is a potential area that other companies don’t necessarily tap into. It could be a key lever in trying to reduce the skills gap in the RACHP industry. Craig added: “We know there’s an undersupply of core engineering skill coming into the industry. Our mature apprentices provide something different. So far, we’ve found individuals who are technically minded but, for varying reasons, couldn’t pursue a trade when leaving school. They vary in age between 27 and 41, for example, and have come from a variety of backgrounds in facilities management, shipping and plumbing.

Jessica Long, Business Operations Apprentice, analysing performance of SURE’s solar panel installation

“It has been a huge success in terms of our mature apprentices hitting the ground running and making an instant contribution. They take some straightforward tasks away from our senior industrial engineers, allowing them to focus on the more technical problems. They plug a different gap, so to speak, and we feel it is a real source of differentiation. They’ve added real diversity to the existing experience we have here already.”

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Flexible learning
Craig has a particular focus on the flexibility of the learning on offer to apprentices. He said: “It’s a more modular programme that we’ve looked to set up with flexibility to obtain a broad exposure of the business. As an example, our business ops apprenticeship is adaptable, where we combine the interest of the apprentice with the needs of the business to come to a development plan.” 

For current apprentice Olivia Sherlock, this meant moving out of her business administration role and into digital marketing at Level 3. Craig said: “We come to a development plan with all of our apprentices that matches their interest and ambition with business needs. We’ve seen the two dovetail well and it’s a beneficial situation all round. The ambition is to build highly skilled, highly capable apprentices into our next senior industrial engineer, but also our next design, business development or project manager. We want to develop individuals into those future roles, it’s a build rather than buy strategy. The beauty of it is that it will constantly evolve, each apprentice’s development will be tailored.”

Olivia Sherlock welcomes the positive learning environment at SURE Solutions

Competencies development
One area SURE feels is often overlooked is the softer side of development and Craig has looked to his previous experience as a management graduate at BP to provide inspiration. 

He said: “One of the big parts of the development I experienced on the graduate programme was in competency-based learning and training. We’ve brought the best elements of that into our programme. We look to focus not only on technical skills, but also common competencies that can apply to various roles such as analytics or commercial skills. Thirdly, we look at behavioural competency. This is the how to complement the what. It’s something that can be overlooked, especially in technical roles. Overall, we’re looking to develop well rounded professionals, and this is a big step in doing that.”

“Development Days” will be a big part of the programme going forward. In taking the apprentices away from their day job to focus on various areas such as automation, design and wider business understanding, the ambition is that it will enable a broader perspective on the apprentices learning and development. Once restrictions start to lift, SURE will be focusing on this area and combining those external growth opportunities with social development in schools and volunteering. 

Business Operations apprentice Olivia Sherlock said: “A large part of choosing SURE when looking for an apprenticeship was the focus on softer skills, the structure and the numerous potential career options it would open up in future. I feel very supported in having a positive environment to learn, make mistakes and develop my future career.”

One eye on the future
Craig added: “Our apprenticeship programme is something we are very passionate about and very proud of. We have been in the fortunate position to continue hiring through the Covid crisis. It was a decision we had to come to, but we’re focusing on the long term and this is a big part of our strategy.

“The plan for the future is to try and get in front of students where possible. We’re aware there’s work to be done in bringing greater diversity into the industry, and that starts with positive influencing at the point of making a career decision. We want to ensure that RACHP careers are promoted as a viable option so when it is safe to do so, we’ll be taking the programme into the classroom.”