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Interview

Now a critical focus too is on a sector-wide ageing workforce and when it comes to attracting the next generation into STEM and engineering, progress is slow. Solutions must be found and fast.

 

Founded in 1940, ERIKS has developed over the years into a leading-edge, innovative multi-product specialist and solutions provider to general industry and with many sectors under intense pressure, there is no place for complacency. Now a critical focus too is on a sector-wide ageing workforce and when it comes to attracting the next generation into STEM and engineering, progress is slow. Solutions must be found and fast.

Joe, take us back to your early life and how you came across HR as a potential career?  

I went to University in Bristol with the plan to study law, started the degree and when we covered employment law, something clicked. For me it was by far the most interesting aspect of the course and it made me consider that perhaps rather than general law, I should specialise in employment law. I attended a couple of careers seminars that the University held and, by chance, talked with an HR Manager from the MOD. I explained my situation and he suggested that I take a look at Human Resources, so after some research I asked to switch courses to the HR Management Business course. It included a placement year, which I completed with Hays Recruitment, who invested in some in-depth training, helped me gain new skills and confidence, but primarily the training really aligned with a strong business development focus… they let me deal with real customers! It was great and so I went back to Uni for my final year whilst Hays helped with several temporary assignments. During one, I was seconded to an assignment at Network Rail in the HR department. I overheard that they were interviewing for an HR Administrator role and so, rather cheekily, I asked if I could apply, and after an interview they offered me the job.

I was based in Bristol at the time and I worked alongside a team that looked after the south-west, roughly Reading to Plymouth and up to Cardiff, working within track maintenance – and I was involved in a very large transformation programme which, unfortunately, included cutting the workforce back. I was exposed to redundancy, transformation and worked closely with the unions and so, if there was any doubt in my mind about a career in HR, this would have found it out. But, if anything, it made me more determined. The way that Network Rail had teams set up, they had business partners that covered certain geographies and my role changed to be more an advisory officer. I was traveling around covering the core elements; absence management, disciplinary and grievance, interacting directly with the unions, attending redundancy consultations and managing that process and communication flow. It was a short stint but very intense, in the eye of the change storm and, after completion, there was another restructure within HR itself and this came just at the time, when I was looking to move back to the Midlands, to my hometown of Birmingham. I applied for some roles closer to home and said goodbye to Network Rail.

Tell us about your next move.  

One of the companies I applied for was a commercial property firm called GVA – now Avison Young – and a completely different environment. My new role was a national one, covering 12 offices across the country, working with professional surveyors. The beauty of a career in HR is the transferable skills, so the sector or size of a firm doesn’t matter. This role was more strategic – with a greater focus on leadership development, people development, engagement – and a lot less of the reactive employee relations work that I’d been used to at Network Rail. But again, it was a great experience, because it allowed me to adapt in a different environment and age demographic. Now I was supporting graduates – as graduate places in surveying are in really high demand. From a personal learning perspective, I also learnt a lot about senior stakeholder management too and had a closer affinity and contact with the directors. This was a very sales-targeted culture and so a very competitive and dynamic environment, which I really adapted well to.

So, tell us about your mindset, at this stage of your career.

This was probably the first time I realised I had ambition and I was pushing for new opportunities, I wanted challenges and I also began to wish that I had my own trainset, to coin the cliché, rather than just carrying out HR staples. I probably came across as a bit of a pain, but I wanted to demonstrate value and they kindly responded and increasingly gave me opportunities to work alongside some great HR business partners. I could really see that role as strategic and business focused, which is where I wanted to be and the business really supported me, but it was clear that I needed another step change, into another environment, with more of a challenge to really test myself. I wanted to progress, but more than anything, I wanted to lead… “something”!

There’s always that career stage where you’ve outgrown one role, but step into a new job that’s potentially beyond you’re experience and competence.  

That’s certainly true and, at this stage, I was approached about a start-up business called First Utility, which was a new player in the burgeoning and increasingly complex energy sector. This was a real challenger brand and they were championing that “the big six” had enjoyed something of a monopoly and so they were marketing more affordable tariffs and educating the public that they could move about suppliers to find cheaper tariffs. This was the brave new world in a market with different dynamics of interactions with customers and it was the right type of business model at the right time. The consumer had become completely disenfranchised with price hikes and not a huge difference between services, so along came First Utility who were very much a disruptor, young, ambitious – altruistic might be too strong – but there was a rebellious swagger and I was really keen to be part of it, so I applied and joined as HR Manager, tasked literally with creating an HR function, so the proverbial trainset I had been coveting. The existing team was lean and the task ahead was to recruit and start putting more structure and to professionalise the department. Meantime, commercially, things were moving very fast and so it really was a case of hitting the boards running, as the business was onboarding thousands of new customers each month. It was just phenomenal growth and that meant having to scale up the business really quickly. It wasn’t unusual to take part in daily conversations like “we need to build a training and development function, NOW!” “We need another contact centre, yesterday!” There was a certain element of flying by the seat of our pants, but it was exhilarating. So, there was much more besides setting up an HR department to occupy my time, before I could even consider things like what the employee value proposition was. Then the Government very kindly introduced pensions auto enrolment, so my first year was, to say the least, a packed agenda. There was just an awful lot happening at the same time and the business grew phenomenally – headcount tripled in a year.

It sounds incredibly dynamic and volatile, was there a point where you thought, time for me to get off this ride?  

In such a fast-moving environment there’s always friction, but we achieved what we set out to do. In answer to your question, there were relationship issues that began to clash and I guess it was a typical scenario of conflict in the working relationship and it didn’t quite feel right and so I made the decision to leave. It was the first time in my career where I wasn’t sure what to do next. I took some time off, did some HR interim work and had a good think about my next career move, because I felt that the next position was going to be key in my career. I joined TNT as an interim, to help manage a transformation project – a move to outsource their IT function – which was about 800 people strong. I was one of a team of people that went in to support and lead on some of those work streams. As the assignment at TNT came to a close, I was approached by DPD, another parcel delivery company – the UK’s largest in that space – and such an innovative, forward-thinking organisation, with a strong track record of performance. I joined as HR Business Partner – in its truest sense – and really connected to the operational area that I was responsible for. I had just over 3000 employees in my remit, it was highly autonomous and HR was really valued by the organisation as a strategic partner. It was a business that was on a great journey, they were the first to move to app-based technology, were able to give guaranteed delivery slots, something we take for granted now but pioneering then.  The entire customer experience had been their focus for years and they trailblazed, consequently dominating the burgeoning B2C market through the service it provided. It was a brilliant experience and every HR initiative was linked to an organisational goal so there was real connection. The HR Business Partner role was deliberately disassociated with transactional activity and the focus was on projects, engagement, development, every element that could drive better service and customer experience. Personally, I was challenged and supported in equal measure, moved onto be an HR Manager and then took over responsibility for managing HR Business Partners, a role that I had been working alongside. In truth, I felt a greater affinity for the Business Partnering role and stepping away from some of that was difficult at first.

Then, quite by chance, I was approached by ERIKS and they were purposefully looking for a new HR Director that hadn’t yet operated on a board, had experience within logistics and had bags of ambition. Sometimes, a job comes along which has “you” written through it. But I was 31 years old… would I seriously be considered experienced enough to make HR Director? It was a stretch, but I went along for the interview and, the fact they took me on, tells you a lot about ERIKS as a company – not fixated in legacy or pre-conceived ideas, or taking the path of least resistance.

Tell us about ERIKS the business and its ambitions in these unpredictable and fast-changing times.  

At its core, this is a specialist distributor of engineering products and services. We work very closely with a wide range of industries and manufacturers within the UK and Ireland – which is the area I am responsible for – and it operates globally. It is the diversity of the business, reflected in its customer portfolio, that is really compelling; automotive, food & beverage and aerospace and many well-known brands in each of the sectors. It’s definitely a more complex organisation than I’ve worked for before and, while the focus is on distribution, there’s also specialism and know-how within the organisation – which is highly-regarded – in particular within our product groups and we apply that specialism to our customer support. It is that intricate understanding that sets the business apart in the sector as it straddles logistics and an engineering environment. Just as I joined the company, the board had put together an ambitious transformation plan, so I was coming into a high performing organisation strategy, including operational excellence, sales excellence and digital transformation. It was clear that this business was about to go on a fascinating journey and the HR and people side of this was ripe for innovation and creativity… this really was right time right place for my ambitions.

The HR team had been very well led for a number of years by the outgoing HR Director, so I had big shoes to fill and confidences to gain, but together we set out the plans to restructure and guide them towards a more strategically-orientated department, focusing on centres of excellence around learning & development and business partnering. From that we assessed the business needs and started to put together a blueprint. We have some typical issues, an ageing population challenge, many could retire within the next five years and they will take some important specialist skills with them. Trying to attract new people into an engineering environment is not easy, because of the much-discussed dribbling pipeline and the competition is also a challenge, particularly when you want to drive diversity and inclusion. The number of women coming into engineering is still far too low and we have a shared commitment to improve that outlook. In other areas, we also have important elements to consider, such as a very ambitious salesforce that are very vocal about career progression and increasing earning potential and so it is very much 360 degree and companywide in the need to be competitive and meet the ambitions of the company and our people. There is no room for complacency right now and we’re designing creative reward and recognition strategies to support that particular area of the business. Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating challenges is engagement in the culture, where we have 1700 employees, operating in 230 different locations – predominantly teams on sites with customers – and so it comes down to trying to foster a culture within a culture, in a bid to engage people across a wide geography. We recently went through a large transformation programme to try and eradicate an increasing problem of siloed divisions, which for us were ultimately counterproductive and had been limiting our ability to grow. We’ve gone through that change exercise now and we’re promoting what we call “One ERIKS” which supports a much more collaborative way of working and more inclusive culture.

You’ve talked about the ageing demographic in your business and expressed concerns about the loss of essential skills. What are you doing to mitigate against this inevitability?  

We’re tackling this on many levels, investing heavily in our apprenticeship programmes and concurrently supporting our managers and leaders through extensive coaching qualifications, to pass on the skills and expertise to the apprentices. But there is a balance, you can’t just flood the business with apprentices, because it can impact your productivity and it raises safety concerns, a significant focus within ERIKS. So, we have been introducing apprentices into the right areas and supporting them with the right coaching, to ensure they receive a world class experience. For sure, it’s been one of our biggest investments from a learning and development perspective and something we are proud to have restarted within the organisation.

How actively do you liaise with local schools and colleges to garner their interest in the business and influence the curriculum?  

We’re part of an industry-wide drive to build STEM profile careers. We regularly attend national and localised careers fairs and we keep close to local schools and we have partners that support us with that. But students going on to study STEM are still a rarity and the few engineering graduates that do come through with the right skills are considered hot property. We’ve invested in our talent acquisition over the last two years, bringing in specialist resources to understand the market and we’re increasingly building effective connections with some of the key schools. This year, some of my team have started working more closely with local schools, governors and education bodies, to influence and encourage students to consider careers in engineering. In fact, the feedback and data we’ve gained has been very useful, enabling us to develop a deeper understanding of ambitions and employee expectations. We’re also very much focused on equality and inclusion, deliberately going for some of the underperforming schools and academies to offer them the same opportunities. It’s just one initiative that we’re launching this year, to really drive diversity and inclusion through the business.

The dribbling STEM pipeline has vexed related sectors for years, is there any sign of improvement?  

Since last year we’ve definitely experienced an increase in the number of people applying for apprenticeships and opportunities across the business, which is a clear sign that our collective efforts to promote STEM is finally paying off and the grimy grease stained image is no longer the distraction that it was, evidenced by the increase in female applicants. Of course, role-modelling is essential and increasingly we’re able to demonstrate a wider demographic working in really smart environments, as opposed to the old image of being knee deep in engine oil. I’m of the generation where going on to University was increasingly the norm, as opposed to students going to tech colleges or vocational training. On paper, the increase in students going to university looked great for inclusion, but it must have been to the detriment of STEM-related careers. However, it does finally look like the tables are beginning to slowly turn, but for sure there’s still work to be done in this space.

The pandemic has forced another step change in the employer/employee relationship, and with it, employee expectation. How do you think that will be reflected going forward?  

Unquestionably, Coronavirus has amplified a number of issues, take for example inequality, insomuch as the ease that some have been able to access flexible working and others have not. As this has gone on, there is no question that expectations for flexible working will increase, either through desire or necessity, but also mobility in terms of career progression and greater flexibility to reflect people’s lives. Either way, for many businesses, a greater empathy and understanding will be the mark of a great employer and supporting people in their lives and having the kind of relationship that trusts and puts people first will be an essential part of the contract going forward.

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