Making the case for setting up apprenticeships

Jez Abbott
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Keenan Phillips had something to prove at his interview for an apprenticeship post. So did the man interviewing him for the job at Saxon Packaging.

Phillips was up against competition from a pool of fresh young talent. Saxon Packaging, however, was up against something far older and more jaded: printing’s image problem.

Many in the sector believe that print’s reputation for being characterised by oily rags and deafening machinery is turning off potential new talent, starving the industry of the fresh blood it needs to thive. Apprenticeships, meanwhile have their own cliches to contend with: that they offer nothing better than poor pay and minimal training.

Saxon Packaging operations manager David Medler – the man opposite Phillips in the interview room – was keen to get the right new recruit, his company’s first ever apprentice. But to do so, he had to set the record straight on both counts just in case Phillips harboured lingering doubts about the career path stretching out ahead of him.

The challenge

Fortunately evidence to crush such doubts is abundant for Medler, Phillips and anyone else stepping into any of the four units occupied by the Lowestoft-based corrugated packaging manufacturer. Saxon Packaging is progressive, investing heavily in its people and machinery, all of it reassuringly doing its thing without fuss, too much noise, or too many oily rags in sight.

“Print and packaging does still have a bit of an image problem,” explains Medler. “This is worrying as it is not just hampering employers’ ability to get the skills their businesses need, it is also taking away opportunities for the next generation to undertake training and secure future jobs, while helping to secure the future of print and packaging.” 

Medler and his chief engineer James Hurren could have hired an experienced engineer, but they decided to go for an apprentice. British industry, insists the former, does not invest enough in such core skills training as engineering. So the decision to go for a young gun was not just a hard-headed business choice, but one with a wider social perspective.

“The choice was not primarily about pounds and pence, but doing the right thing. There is not enough manufacturing, and there are not enough engineers left in this country. We did this as much because it was the right thing to do for the wider British industry. We are also a fairly small company with 60 staff, so we needed someone we could nurture over time into a team player.”

The wider industry may still have a few image problems, but these are exciting times for Saxon Packaging after its acquisition by packaging conglomerate Smurfit Kappa in October 2016. The company is keen to grow and keep pumping money into kit upgrades and continuing professional development at every stage of employees’ careers.

The method

Medler and his team looked at nearby East Coast College, a further education campus with bases in Lowestoft, Suffolk and Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. This is where the might of a big brother helps. Smurfit Kappa is a packaging titan with around 46,000 staff in 35 countries. More specifically it has a big presence in East Anglia, with depots in Diss and Norwich relying on the college for recruits.

The 19-year-old engineering student Phillips was one of more than 20 students considered by Saxon Packaging before an interview shortlist of four was invited for a day at Harvest Drive, Lowestoft. Each candidate individually spent a day on site, and this was crucial to selection, says Medler, keen to prove his company’s clean and lean credentials and blow the bad myths about apprenticeships.

“We needed to prove our new apprentice would not be spending eight hours a day feeding cardboard into a machine. We also needed to show them what kind of gear they will be maintaining and fixing to reassure them they wouldn’t be tinkering with small, peripheral equipment. 

“Saxon Packaging has big, heavy assets; flexo plant with the most sophisticated electrics, hydraulics, bearings and, yes, a little bit of oil to test their engineering skills. It was important to take away any fear they may still have they would be little more than casual staff.”

Not only did Smurfit Kappa give Medler a good steer on where to find his new recruit, but it took out much of the red tape he had feared that taking on an apprentice would entail. This includes the apprenticeship levy, another institution with an image problem – since it’s launch last year, the levy has been criticised by many across industries for its complexity.

Businesses with a payroll of more than £3m have to pay 0.5% of that payroll towards a levy intended to tackle skills shortages. Companies then draw on money from that fund to pay for skills training. Medler is relieved Smurfit Kappa was already set up for the levy, meaning all he had to do was identify a lucky person to benefit from the funding – amounting to about £30,000 over four years. 

As well as engineering skills, Medler was looking for intrapersonal, or social, skills and good maths and English. Above all though, he wanted an “all-rounder”, not just another pair of hands on the shopfloor. Being a small player meant it was essential the new man “worked for himself and for us and contributed at a team level, which is why the bottom line of this exercise was never money”.

The result

Keenan Phillips was chosen for his “enthusiasm, practical ability, down-to-earth attitude and friendly disposition,” explains Medler. Over the next four years he will work towards completing an apprenticeship food and drink maintenance engineer Level 3 standard and a diploma in engineering maintenance. Phillips will learn mechanical, electrical, pneumatic and hydraulic engineering one day a week at college. The rest of the time he will be under the supervision of Hurren.

On the shopfloor he is shadowed by Hurren, who himself was mentored in the RAF before joining Saxon Packaging and knows the importance of close collaborative training. Together they fill out a training journal involving case studies of how he has tackled machinery breakdowns with photos and descriptions of what happened, how he mended the glitch and what he has learned.

While Phillips rates Saxon Packaging’s “upbeat atmosphere and welcoming team where everyone helps each other get the job done”, Medler explains: “Keenan works across the board and will do all the training more senior engineers do as his career develops. He is no teaboy, but an integral part of our engineering team.”

Though apprenticeship training often marks the first taste of work for many young people, what they lack in specific skills, they more than make up for in enthusiasm, fresh perspective and an appetite to learn, says Medler, whose company may roll out apprenticeship training. But it is a big commitment for both apprentice and employer, and print and packaging companies must “really drill down” on why they want to recruit new staff this particular way. 

He adds: “Taking on our first apprenticeship is a great new way to start building a talent pipeline within Saxon Packaging. Introducing young talent to our organisation has also helped us develop our existing staff. It has opened the wider workforce’s eyes to the importance of nurturing skills and highlighted the fact that we are investing in the business and those who make it work.” 

Vital statistics

Saxon Packaging 

Location Lowestoft, Suffolk 

Inspection host Operations manager David Medler

Size Turnover: undisclosed; Staff: 60 

Established 1986

Products Packaging for beer and wine, die-cut packaging, boxes, cases and cartons, litho-, flexo- and screen-printed packaging 

Kit Two casemaker lines: one Martin and one Piemme; Lamina Blackline 1620 laminating line; two Bobst die-cutters; Jagenberg high-speed spot-glue device, wire stitching gear

Inspection focus Taking on an apprentice


Define why you want an apprentice and what you want to achieve. If you just need someone to make tea, an apprenticeship is not the appropriate course.

Ensure the business case for taking on a new trainee member of staff is sound.

Identify a local college that will deliver the apprenticeship your business needs.

Measure the level of management skills in your company and appoint a mentor.

Provide structured training with end goals and qualifications.

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