Past student and local business owner on a mission to increase enrolment in engineering programmes.
Alex Harding is on a mission. His goal is to get more youngsters to train as engineers.
His business, like many others, has suffered from older staff retiring, especially during the coronavirus lockdowns.
But replacing them has proved difficult because of a national shortage of a new breed ready to take their place.
So the boss of Cajero, which makes tools for the aerospace industry in Rushenden on the Isle of Sheppey, has put his money where his mouth is and taken on two trainees straight from school.
Sam Bird, 19, was at Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey and Oliver Jones, 17, was at Westlands, Sittingbourne. Both have joined Alex’s custom-designed training scheme at his hi-tech factory.
Sam said: “I always wanted a job where I was hands-on but able to use my brain. I haven’t stopped learning since I’ve been here.”
Oliver added: “I did bricklaying and carpentry at school and always wanted to do an apprenticeship. When this came up I jumped at it.”
Cajero looks like any other warehouse from the outside. But inside, its staff of 30 are producing state-of-the-art cutting tools for the world’s aerospace industries such as Boeing and Airbus. Alex, 45, said: “In the cold light of day it is obvious we need a bigger pool of people passionate about creating and making things.”
The dad of two said: “Everything we use, from iPads and phones to trains and cars, has been touched by an engineer. It’s a wonderful job, always full of challenges, but my biggest battle is convincing others.
“I see the look of awe in my own children’s faces and want to find a way of bottling it. I want to leave a legacy and pass on things we know.”
His own wife is an engineer (they met at grammar school in Tunbridge Wells) but when he goes into schools he says there are still few girls on engineering courses.
“I look around and wonder what has changed in 40 years. Britain has a wonderful history of engineers from Watt and Brunel to Dyson but the challenge is to fire up a new generation.”
His partner in crime is his Scottish-born production manager, Steve Elliott, who is also a director of the Queenborough Harbour Trust and part of the Sheerness lifeboat crew.
He said: “I adore engineering. It has taken me all over the world. No two days are the same.”
When he finishes for the day he can often be found in his workshop at home creating his own model engineering projects.
He said: “Somehow we have to get to children when they are really young. Leaving it until they are 16 or 17 is too late. We need to inspire them when they are at primary school. Or better still, inspire their parents.”
The pair have visited Westlands School in Sittingbourne and were delighted to discover it still has workshops teaching ‘old fashioned’ skills like sawing, filing and turning.
Steve, 57, said: “We have been to training centres but often they are just ticking boxes. They turn out people with certificates but not engineers. We want enthusiastic problem-solvers who thrive on a challenge.”
The pair are hoping to encourage schools and other like-minded companies to get onboard and are even working on a competition.
Alex said: “Sheppey is the birthplace of British aviation and home to the first flying pig. Wouldn’t it be great to challenge schools and other companies to create their own 21st century flying pig?”
The tag line for the company is two words: Challenge. Accepted.
Alex explained: “Our engineers won’t let a challenge pass them by. They love getting their teeth into a puzzle and solving it. They grew up with Lego and Meccano. They solve Sudoku for fun!”
The company was founded by his father Phil in 1992, after leading a management buyout when the Scandinavian company he was working for decided to quit Britain.
Since then it has been helping the world’s most innovative aerospace companies by solving their most challenging questions of how to cut through new super-strong composite materials.
As a result of the pandemic the company has invested heavily in automisation. Robots now work throughout the weekend checking on quality as they go.
Alex said: “Almost overnight we had to devise new methods. We still need skilled engineers but we also need those with a different set of skills able to work on computer numerical control (CNC) machines.”
The last one he bought cost £350,000.
Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey has welcomed the move.
Craig Inns, the head of its engineering faculty, admitted: "We have had great success in the past with students joining a multitude of engineering pathways. However, our engineering department is still in its infancy and an area we are keen to develop further with the support of local industry.
"We hope that in developing this area of our curriculum we are able to offer our students more vocational experience through the medium of local businesses.
"We look forward to working collaboratively with our local engineering sector to offer bespoke pathways for our learners and encourage all young people to explore the exciting field of engineering."
It offers pupils the WJEC level 1/2 award in engineering and EAL level 2 certificate in engineering.