Nifco UK boss Mike Matthews started as an apprentice

He’s the boss of Teesside’s Company of the Year, a £30m turnover car parts manufacturer which has just moved into a new £8.5m factory. But how did our nebusiness cover star Mike Matthews get his first foot on the career ladder? Kelley Price finds out.

MIKE Matthews is living proof of how far an apprenticeship can take your career.

At 16, he was making injection moulds for anything from washing machines to lawnmowers.

He rose through the ranks and today’s he’s managing director of leading global car-parts supplier Nifco UK, twice winner of Teesside’s Company of the Year crown.

Mike says he’s a self-proclaimed “skills activist”.

“I’m like an ex-smoker,” he laughs, “an evangelist.”

“I’m very passionate about apprenticeships.

“It’s absolutely essential for businesses to train apprentices. If we don’t replenish the skills we have, there will be a gap.”

Mike Matthews of Stockton-based Nifco UK

And the size of the current problem is vast, says Mike.

“We are looking at 8,500 technical retirees in the North-east alone over the next five years.

“At the moment, we’re not training as many apprentices as we’ve got technical people retiring.

“We are already seeing it.

“There are jobs in certain sectors on Teesside that can’t be filled because people haven’t been trained in the skills we need.

“We’ve got the Hitachi project, and massive growth in car production in the area. Assembly is only one part of it, the real challenge is in the supply chain.

“To put it in the context of Durham Tees Valley airport, if you don’t have technicians, there’s not much chance of getting aerospace spin-off jobs.”

Nifco’s Teesside team is a business built on apprenticeship skills.

“Of our senior management team, nine out of 11 came into business via an apprenticeship,” added Mike.

“Given that Nifco has just won the Teesside nebusiness awards Company of the Year for the second year in a row, that’s a pretty good indication of the quality of trained managers we have.”

And a recent Where are they Now round-up of Mr Matthew’s apprenticeship year – the class of 1981 – showed out of 120 apprentices, 42 had high-profile jobs.

Mr Matthews studied via SW Durham Training in Newton Aycliffe.

Many high profile names completed training with the organisation, including Stewart Wingate, an ex-Black and Decker apprentice who is now chief executive of Gatwick Airport and comedian Vic Reeves.

Mr Matthews is an active member of SEMTA (the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies), and the newly formed North-east Skills Alliance for advanced manufacturing.

Teesside’s process sector, he said, was very well recruited with apprentices – more than 300 last year – but that should be the norm.

“It needs that level of recruitment because it’s a massive sector.

“We are all in our late-40s. We need to think about who will fill the gap we’ve left.

“In the North-east, about 4,800 companies currently only 10-15% recruiting apprentices.

“That’s 85% that aren’t.

“Times will be even harder than they are now in ten years, when their business is compromised because lack of skills.

“Manufacturing and engineering has been in decline, but times are changing. The UK has become a competitive place to manufacture again.”

Lifeblood of the region DARCHEM Engineering MD Graham Payne believes apprentices are the lifeblood of the Teesside business.

And current trainees make up almost 10% of the Stillington-based engineering company workforce.

“Apprentices are a fundamental for us,” he said.

“The success of our business is very much driven by the skills of its people.

“Our type of industry involves highly demanding skills on the shop floor and our apprentice programme is the cornerstone of our success.”

Darchem works in sectors such as aerospace and nuclear.

“These have a very high level of demand with regard to quality of the products and systems are very challenging,” he added.

“Our training provider is Hartlepool College, which is a world-leading facility with a culture, values and training capacity that really suits our requirements.”

Darchem has 49 apprentices at its Stillington site, which employs 650.

“It’s a substantial number,” he added, “and a good example of how much value we place on our apprentice schemes and how much confidence we have in terms of business growth and ability to provide those apprentices with potential future employment.

“We take 100% of our apprentices on.”

He added: “The economy is challenged at the moment, but manufacturing is seeing a period of growth. Apprentices help the sector capitalise on this opportunity.

“It’s fundamental that all of industry up and down the chain considers their own positions – if they don’t, we could see shortages in terms of capacity and capability.

“We’re seeing growth and resurgence, labour costs in low-cost countries such as China are driving UK manufacturers to reconsider.

“The Evening Gazette’s 100-day campaign from an industrial point of view is absolutely perfect, and I think other industrial leaders in the region share that view.”

Paul Champion
Strategic Project Manager

Mobile: 07540 704920

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