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Engineered Learning: the future of skip manufacturing

Over the past fifty years, the UK’s metal fabrication industry has dwindled. Cheaper steel prices and labour overseas has meant that a once proud domestic manufacturing sector has shrank leaving towns and cities, mostly in the once-booming North of England, with mass unemployment and social problems. Schools teaching craft skills like metal work and wood work has dropped sharply over the past twenty years in favour for more focus on IT-based subjects, leaving a section of children with natural engineering skills bereft of training and education.

Skip Hire Magazine caught up with Dan Read who has set up Engineered Learning to cater for young people who are on the verge of being, or already have been, expelled from fulltime education. He and his team of teachers train them in metal work at their Derby-based workshop, through the manufacturing of skips, brackets and other metal products.

“We teach fabrication and welding through manufacturing – in what we call our bread and butter product – skips,” says Dan who has been running Engineered Learning for two years. “The idea behind the skips is that there is a low level skill required, and we can keep welding them until the welding is of a high standard. So they are fully welded – around about three times as much as what you’d see on a mass produced skip. We also do structural building components for a variety of companies. We’ve done feed boxes for cattle, we’re currently making a load of brackets for the local council to hang strimmers off… and lots of other stuff. We teach steel work, but we use real-life products that go out in to the industry and can be used out in the real world.”

Engineered Learning get their funding from the pupil referral unit which the various schools around the area buy-in to. In education, each pupil comes with a set amount of money from the government. When a pupil is expelled from a school, the funding goes with them so it’s in the school’s interest to keep the pupil on their roll because when you exclude a pupil, you lose the funding.

“The young people we deal with are prolific non-attenders or have social or emotional issues, so we play an educational-babysitting-entertaining role. However, we find that the young people make more effort and want to get involved because we treat them as adults. They feel that what they’re doing with us is worthwhile. So this allows them an easier way of achieving and they have a sense of achievement from seeing a product that they have made go out of the door.”

Dan Read’s background has given him good experience of the tasks that lie in front of him every day. “I was apprenticed on the railways straight from school. Then I became an informal educator teaching outdoor education – rock climbing, canoeing, caving and other activities for twenty years. I was the senior instructor for the last fifteen of those years for Derby City Council. Then the cutbacks hit, so I chose to take voluntary redundancy and set up Engineered Learning.”

Read saw a huge shortage in talent but a massive demand from businesses who still required craft skills. “The fact is that nobody else is doing what we’re doing. Nobody is teaching the skills and businesses are struggling to find any hand skills. Engineering is particularly close to my heart as I served as a plater welder. The idea for us is that these young people have been pushed to the back of the employment queue simply because they’ve been excluded from mainstream schools. What we’re trying to do is give them hand skills so they become an instant asset to an employer and nudge them back to the front of the employment queue.”

Dealing with this section of young adults, a large part of the job includes providing the emotional support and the appropriate management as well as the training. Read is nationally trained as a youth worker and studied Youth Work at Derby university before twenty years working as an informal educator. “There’s lots of other issues going on, their behaviour is dictated by what took place the previous day so yes, it is hard work but it’s incredibly rewarding and we have incredibly good behaviour considering the type of young people we’re working with”.

The duration of time that a student stays with Read’s organisation all depends on the school. Engineered Learning have some pupils who are near to completing their second year doing two days a week. Meanwhile, there are pupils who attend one day a week, and some that attend half a day a week. Ultimately, like most things, it all relies on money and how much the school can afford to pay.

“It also works on how much benefit the school thinks we’re providing,” says Read, “I had two students start with me a few weeks ago on two half days, but now the school wants them there for two full days.”

Having set up Engineered Learning in 2013, Read is proud of how quickly things have progressed.

“We’re operating about fifty students a week on average. We’ve got two workshops side by side and where we make brackets, practice and teach welding – we try to keep them moving to stop them getting bored because they’ve got short attention spans. This is only our second academic year of running and we managed to get one young lad a job last year – so our aim is to get as many as we can in to manufacturing and the industry.

“The business is growing and soon we’ll have more of a focus on other careers than just engineering. I’ll soon need clerical support and I’d like that to be a learning opportunity for someone soon. We’re still very much in our infancy, but we’ve achieved a lot in our short life. We’ve just gone through an inspection with Derbyshire Council who use the Ofsted framework, and we came out as outstanding in fifteen out of sixteen areas, so we are doing well. It’s just getting the word out to industry, so our students benefit from what they are achieving and our reputation grows so people know who have come from us are worth employing.”

What skills are the students actually learning from making skips?

“We get the steel from Eggleston’s, the local steel supplier and we mark them out with chalk lines which reinforces functional skills. They then cut it all out with angle grinders rather than guillotines which teaches them hand-to-eye coordination and then they go to get welded. They’re all unpainted at the moment as we’re waiting on someone to buy them and dictate what colour they want – but that is a service that we can supply too.

We want to sell the skips that we make. They’re taking up room in the warehouse. We want to speak to businesses in and around the area who have a requirement for skips to see if we can help them with the supply of skips. We can also take on any other waste products. In terms of meeting legislation in regards to lifting and so on, all our staff are time-served and certified welders, so it’s not like all those critical points are left to the students, they’re all done by the staff as a demonstration but they’re all done to a high standard regardless.”

The success of Engineered Learning not only relies on the funding that the local authorities can provide, but also the support of the waste industry. While it is easy to dismiss young people who have struggled in full time education, there is the mounting problem of young people left on the scrap heap. However, with the right help, understanding and time – Read is creating craftsmen out of a group of people who would be once resigned to failure.

“Some of the schools who we’ve worked with are more than happy to take out adverts in the local press to highlight what we do. One of the most beautiful things about what we do is the amount of support we’re getting from people who we wouldn’t think would be interested. A lot of the population write off young people, especially the sort that we work with. They get a lot of bad press, but they’re life’s natural survivors and they’ve found their own way because they’ve had to. I have an enormous amount of respect for them, which is something I don’t often tell them!” He laughs and reflects, “There’s some real good lads and girls down there. What we’d like is to sell some skips, become a regular supplier of skips to somebody, repair skips and so on. We don’t charge for labour as we’re already covering that. If you need a new floor for your skip, we could do that just for the cost of the steel. We’re as cheap as you’re going to get.”

Read’s five year plan includes building Engineered Learning in to a series of franchises rolled out across the UK. If you feel you could benefit from the products that the organisation are offering, contact Dan on [email protected] or ring 07544 390352.