A Peebles-based bottling and packaging solutions provider is starting to reap the benefits of its work with a local high school to encourage the next generation of engineers.
Evolution has been working with Peebles High School since 2016, hosting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) sessions and mentoring students.
The business is currently recruiting for a second apprentice and has seen 71% of applications arriving from the local school population – in stark contrast to just 20% when the company last took an apprentice on two years ago.
Additionally, a team of students Evolution mentored throughout an engineering project has devised a valuable concept which is set to be refined and implemented by the firm.
Susan Brown, Evolution’s sales and marketing manager, believes developing strong links between employers and local educational facilities can only be of benefit for the industry in general.
Susan told Packaging Scotland, “We recognised and experienced ourselves the difficulty in recruiting engineers who have the specific skills that we need in our sector – particularly the bottling side of packaging. It’s been a real challenge finding the right skillset. We did take on an apprentice a couple of years ago and had some challenges identifying candidates from our local community. Through that, and just a general understanding of the need for engineers to come into the sector, we got the opportunity to start working with PPMA BEST, the charitable arm of the trade association.”
Working with PPMA Best, Evolution realised funding support was available to bring initiatives to Peebles High School. The aim is to help students bring real life context to the STEM subjects they’re learning about in school.
Evolution has helped to embed an annual STEM day for S3 pupils as part of the academic calendar, which is delivered to over 200 pupils and helps them make informed decisions about what subjects to choose going forward.
The firm is also promoting the benefits of apprenticeships as a real and valuable alternative to university education.
Susan added, “We’ve been fortunate in that the school has recognised the benefits in what we’re trying to do. When we started, we didn’t want to dive in and do one STEM day for S3 and then walk away from it. We’ve done two now in the last two academic years and we have plans alongside PPMA to continue to do that for the S3 year group. We’re developing what that programme looks like. The more times we do it, (the more) we refine it. We’re doing it for the whole year group. Some of them just aren’t interested in sciences at all. That’s fine; they’re allowed to not be interested in it, but we want them to get something out of the process.
“There are a wide range of careers associated with STEM, not just necessarily hands-on engineering. That’s important for us as a business because we need a bit of technical awareness in all areas, whether that’s marketing, customer service – we need people who can understand what it is they are talking about. Even if you don’t take it into the pure engineering aspect of the career, the technical knowledge is still of value.”
In the 2018/19 academic year, Evolution and PPMA Best introduced Peebles High to the Engineering Education Scheme (EES), which provides S5 and S6 students with an opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge further. The students are tasked with undertaking a project provided by their industry mentor, which requires skills such as teamwork, project management and report writing.
Evolution agreed to mentor a team from Peebles and set them the challenge of devising a way that the business could make better use of technology to improve communication between engineers on customer sites, head office and OEMs.
The pupils came up with a solution that combined the use of an existing augmented reality tool with a bespoke software programme written by them to make reporting more efficient. The outcome will be to facilitate real time information exchange between various locations.
As part of the task, the team visited Evolution customer sites and attended a workshop hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University.
Susan said the concept will now be taken forward and add real value to the business.
“We were lucky in that the team was proactive and came to us with questions,” she said. “The solution they came up with was entirely of their own making – we genuinely posed them a problem that we had in the business and they came up with a unique solution.
“Although their scheme has now finished, most of them are going into S6 next year so we hope to continue our work with that group to engage industry professionals and refine the solution and actually put it into use in our business. The students will get the ongoing benefit of seeing the concept that they’ve come up with become reality.
“We’re also in early stages of discussions with the school to launch a scheme with a new team and a new project for the next academic year. We don’t want this to be a one hit wonder. We want students to get the opportunity to get the exposure year on year.”
Susan has urged other businesses in the sector to get involved with similar initiatives to help tackle the skills gap and ensure a steady stream of potential new recruits for an industry crying out for fresh talent.
“The more businesses that can do this type of activity, the longer-term benefit there will be for all employers in the engineering sectors,” she explained. “There’s going to be a spin-off because we’ll have more people out there with the skills we’re all looking for.”
Evolution’s work with Peebles High earned the firm the PPMA BEST Award at last year’s PPMA Group Industry Awards.