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High flying HR – Real-life pilot programme

Vector Aerospace UK had to implement significant changes to stay competitive and react to the markets in which it operates. Here, Claire Silvester, Vice President of Human Resources, explains how this transformational shift was achieved so effectively in such a short space of time.

Vector Aerospace UK, is an international provider of aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul. Throughout its history the business has proven to be a successful chameleon when recognising the need for change.

Since acquiring two sites in the UK from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 2008, the organisation has undergone a series of cultural, strategic and commercial shifts; evolving from a predominantly military-focused service provider to an agile, flexible and sales-focused business, active in both the military and civil sectors. The beginning of Vector Aerospace’s UK story really begins back in 1999 when the Government launched the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA); an executive arm of the MOD responsible for the maintenance and repair of the UK’s military aircraft and engine fleets. Following a review of this body, a few years later, the decision was made to privatise its various divisions to achieve increased effectiveness and better value for money. Subsequently, in 2008, Vector Aerospace Corporation bought the DARA sites at Fleetlands in Gosport and Almondbank in Perth, which specialised primarily in airframe and component MRO for the MOD’s fleet of Chinook, Lynx and Sea King helicopters.

Although we have always aimed to provide services to both the civil and military markets, there is no getting away from the fact that our workload was initially dominated by MOD contracts. Given the tempo of deployed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the experience of our workforce and the strong organisational relationship we had with the MOD, it seemed natural for our business portfolio to be predominantly military in nature. However, with the passage of time, we have looked to leverage this capability to develop new service offerings for our unique skill-sets, in order to expand our footprint around the world by supporting various new products. The success of our ongoing shift from military to civil is readily apparent. The company continues to develop strong working relationships and licence approvals with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as; Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney Canada and Rolls-Royce, attain airworthiness accreditations and quality assurance credentials from regulators such as the European Aviation Safety Agency, and expand its order book with contracts from key civil operators. And all this whilst remaining a key aftermarket service provider to the UK MOD.

However, behind this capability transformation, a lot of behind-the-scenes work was required to deliver the structural and cultural changes that affected this evolution. Our change programme needed to transform the business to address the requirements of the civil market, which demands an agile, responsive and competitive service offering, which pre-existing legacy structures could not have handled. Naturally, a significant input was required of my Human Resources team to deliver change; be it culturally, structurally or operationally, with respect to the policies, people and skills required to deliver new services from a business development perspective, whilst retaining our core engineering excellence.  

My guiding strategic handrail was an improvement in the company’s brand as an employer. As anyone within the MRO sector is aware, there is a skills shortage in what amounts to a candidate-driven market. Unfortunately, we had subconsciously adopted the culture and operating practices of a public sector body immediately after our acquisition of the DARA sites back in 2008. This was perfectly natural considering that many of the staff who had worked at Almondbank and Fleetlands, joined Vector following the privatisation. However, the private sector exacts different competitive demands, compared to its publicly-owned counterpart; hence the need to improve our organisational health and employee proposition.

Consequently, the HR team implemented a series of changes to create a working environment which now affords the company a significant competitive advantage when it comes to recruitment and personnel retention. We altered the business management structure to adhere to a new Lean philosophy; reshaping the business to better service a different set of customer needs. This improved the ratio of direct ‘hands-on’ staff to support staff and was achieved through a conciliatory programme of natural retirements, voluntary redundancies and retraining.  Over the years, I have learnt that taking an agile and opportunistic approach to change is the fastest way to delivering sustainable results. Although I concede that a clear vision of where you need to end up must ultimately guide your thoughts, you have to be attuned to areas which are ripe for transformation. For example in the short term, the HR team achieved immediate structural changes, which occurred in conjunction with the development of a strategic training programme. This idea was to deliver the technical capability required by new customers in the civil sector and also the management skills which would underpin the company’s long-term success. 

Regrettably, a hangover from DARA’s operating environment had been significant underinvestment in training. Most management personnel had received no specific leadership training, as their advancement had been dependent upon technical engineering excellence – as opposed to evidence of management potential. My department was inundated with complaints about management shortcomings as many, through no fault of their own, simply did not understand their roles. Many did not feel comfortable in assessing the performance of their one-time mates and the company suffered as a result as productivity declined. To affect a change, we introduced a structured training scheme designed to improve interpersonal skills, educate managers about their responsibilities and rationalise working practices such as; attitudes to employee appraisals.Enrolment in this management scheme has continued apace and since its implementation in 2009, 211 personnel have been re-skilled and the initial pilot scheme (‘Frontline Manager Programme’) has been developed to include a new course – the ‘Leadership Programme’.

The strategic training shift was accompanied by tactical developments in training delivery. The in-house training style, when I joined, was another unwelcome DARA legacy. It lacked the impact and strength necessary to achieve the requisite cultural changes we wanted to deliver. A generic Power Point-based programme was failing to engage personnel, so we took the decision to develop a bespoke training style, the ‘Vector Way’, which not only acted as a conduit for culture rationalisation within our UK operation, but also delivered a more interactive programme, characterised by innovative techniques. New methods, such as role-play exercises and a partnership with Roffey Park – an internationally recognised charitable trust specialising in innovative learning approaches – professionalised company training, providing a more effective workforce. All these changes constituted the low-hanging fruit which was ripe for change; I admit that pension rationalisation proved to be a more complex long-term objective.

When we took the site over from DARA back in 2008, employee retention and longevity was our primary aim. However this was at odds with the civil service Defined Benefits Scheme we inherited which was creating a pension deficit that threatened to undermine the company’s longevity. A shift was necessary to a Defined Contribution Benefit Pension Scheme, akin to that undertaken by other companies at the time such as BP and Unilever. We took an innovative approach, guided by the principle of agility and openness we were so keen to foster in our workforce. Through a prolonged process of employee education, so that the financial issues at play could be fully comprehended by our workforce, and open dialogue with the unions, who I must say acted in a mature, responsible and understanding fashion, we were able to affect this seismic shift without a single grievance issue. The crux of our approach was flexibility; we really listened to employees who realised they were part of a genuine consultation process. Bespoke packages were devised in accordance with individual cases, resulting in an 89 percent acceptance of the new terms – an achievement we are all incredibly proud of.

If up-skilling our existing employees and improving the company’s competitive offering was the first prong of our change programme, attracting the best new talent was the second. A concerted decision was taken to attract graduates via entry-level positions and management roles, a policy which was not pursued previously. Again, this required an improvement of our employee brand. Pay and grading is now directly linked to performance, as opposed to time served, and a number of employee recognition schemes have been introduced to improve the workplace environment. I know it sounds trite and is widely not considered as a scientific metric of success, but people really are now smiling in the office and I do not think that can be underestimated. Statistical evidence is also readily available though. Last year, our enhanced apprentice scheme, constituted a cadre of almost fifty trainees committed to a three year programme of structured development, split between Fleetlands and Almondbank. On current records 80 percent of these aspiring young people will complete the course, with 95 percent still with the company after five years, and 85 percent after a decade – you cannot put a price on that kind of loyalty. Absenteeism has fallen also, from 7.9-2.6 percent and our recent Employment Engagement Survey showed that 83 percent of employees are glad to work at Vector. It is not surprising that recently, contract successes in the civil sector have increased significantly, given this kind of employee pedigree.

I am happy to say that the future is bright, and smiley at Vector. The impetus for change is now coming from the workshop itself. Employees are presenting the HR team and the wider engineering and business development teams with innovative new ideas; they seem fully invested in the business and are hungry for success. This ‘organic’ development makes my job a lot easier and has allowed my team to focus on delivering new training programmes, the latest of which we will introduce shortly and is set to further enhance our links with the local community.

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