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Sat, Nov

The university challenge

As we kick off a new series of ‘Turning on the Talent’ articles the starter question goes to the Simpson Group. How are they doing just that?

To paraphrase the famous quote from the film ‘Field of Dreams’: If you build it, they will come. The Simpson Group can prove it. By building strong relationships with local educational establishments it is pulling in people that otherwise would never have thought of a career with a print company. Sri Kataram and Adam Riddick are proof positive. Both are IT/software development specialists who have been directed towards Simpsons by Teesside University, where the group’s ever strengthening relationship with computing sciences lecturer Barry Hebbron in particular is really paying off.

“Print companies were not on my radar at all in terms of a career choice,” says Kataram, who holds a Masters in computing from Teesside University and came to Simpsons on a CIP 12 month internship which ended a year ago. He stayed on and is extremely positive about the chance he has been given, explaining: “While I was still at university I spoke to a number of companies but was pointed toward the Simpson Group where I saw there was an in-house software development program that I would be getting involved in, which sounded very interesting. Once I got here I then found that I’d not just be working on in-house projects but on stuff for clients as well so I have direct contact with them too. Plus I’m working across different domains like accounting, supply chain etc. – all really good experience.”

Riddick too is happy he was directed towards Simpsons, saying it was a chance that came out of left field. He is an undergraduate at Teesside University studying for a degree in science and computing, and currently on placement at the company. “One of my lecturers [Barry Hebbron] who knows Simpson Group well suggested it to me. Until then I just thought of going into a software house or a tech. company. But Barry asked if I’d thought about the manufacturing sector, which I hadn’t, and talked me through the Simpson’s placement. And I also spoke to Sri, who was already here. I just wouldn’t have thought that print companies as having in-house software development teams otherwise.”

He’s enthusiastic about having made the decision to get involved in the industry via this placement scheme. “The products we work on here help ease the pain for the group’s clients, which in turn impacts upon Simpson’s bottom line, and so people like me see that we’re a valuable resource and have real impact within the company. And we’re sitting in talking with directors – I wouldn’t have expected that. In a software house you’d probably be at the bottom of the pile doing something that didn’t mean a lot to you.

“It’s important that once you’re attracted into a business that you have a stimulating experience or you’ll go away, and spread a negative message. I’d definitely now tell people starting on a career in IT to look outside their normal scope and look at opportunities in industries like print.”

You’ll note that both Kataram and Roddick have come toSimpsons as part of the group’s push to attract new IT talent. But that initiative only kicked in about four years ago; its mission to attract bright young things started way before that.

“Being based where we are in Washington, Tyne and Wear, there’s not a huge pool of good people already in the industry to choose from,” explains chairman Mark Simpson. “It’s still important to bring people up through production. We used to have many shopfloor apprentices and some would move up through the business – it was good for them and the company. But as we’ve become more service orientated we’ve needed to bring in new people in new areas. It was really through meeting people at a POPAI awards thing that we got involved in KTPs (Knowledge Transfer Partnerships) about seven years ago and started working closely with the local universities.

“At first we brought in a graduate to work on the CAD side of things and focussed on attracting designers. Careers in this sector at that time just wouldn’t have occurred to these graduates without us actively working with the colleges to bring them in. And after that we were inspired and started looking at other parts of the business where we felt our ties with educational establishments could help us.”

An obvious focus was IT. As Simpson says, “it was a space that nobody in the business owned and needed attention and development.” So in summer 2011 the group’s links with Teesside University once again proved useful, this time in helping it nab Mark Flanagan as information systems manager. Holding a doctorate from Teesside University and with a background in paper manufacturing, he was something of a scoop for Simpson Group who at the time was looking for someone to lead its IT integration team.

“Thanks to the links between the university and Simpsons I was recommended to come to the company and head up the IT operations. But I needed support so we started looking at KEIs (Knowledge Exchange Internships), an established route for postgraduates to get into business. Through this programme the company gets a person for a year, the intern gets business insight and mentorship from the university and we all get access to the IT development knowledge pool at the university which gives us a great heads-up on what’s around the corner,” says Flanagan.

 “KEIs mean we not only attract good people, but that by having them on board via this scheme we get a real technical insight and can see a growth path – which we can then use to help drive the suppliers in this industry to keep up,” adds Simpson.

Both he and Flanagan point out that Teesside University, though an Academic Enterprise project, has business liaison managers, a useful link that Simpsons makes the most of. “The university is trying to forge stronger ties with local business in the way the old polytechnics used to,” explains Flanagan. “It’s a two-way street. For instance, Teesside approached us to road-test Windows 8.”

“The university gets a lot from us – the software projects we work with them on aren’t necessarily print focussed at all – but in return we get insight and good people being directed towards us,” enthuses Simpson.

The company is also now involved in an undergraduate scheme, a 48-week sandwich course programme. “When I did my BSc I went on work?placement for a year and I?understand the value of it,” says Flanagan, who has been championing the idea at Simpsons “And if you manage the students well you get a really good, cost-effective employee.”

To attract the right people Simpson and the university has a joint approach to ‘sell’ the concept to chosen students. “We now know people at the university who know who the stars of the future are and they handpick the best for us because they know us and the type of person we are looking for,” explains Simpson. “In IT for instance, there will be a number of companies vying for the best students. We talk to them about the developments and challenges we face as and talk about the type of work they’ll be involved in. They seem to see that we’re wanting them to be involved at the leading edge of development and they like that.”

“And the university spreads the word on our behalf. That’s important,” stresses Flanagan. “It’s key that we keep up a constant relationship with the lecturers and talk about what we’re doing and looking at for the future. We want to have a constant stream of new people coming in, because they bring new ideas with them.”

And that means that apprenticeships are again a focus for Simpsons too. The latest tranche of apprentices, via the BPIF scheme and mainly on the estimating side of the business, are now in their third year. The company is now looking at the Fespa scheme for 2014.

It also continues to have a relationship with the local school of art through which it hopes to attract young designers, and with the School of Engineering at Northumbria University with which it’s currently working on a project to find someone to bring a new approach to production scheduling and planning.

“We have had consultants in to talk to us about recruitment tactics and on how to brand ourselves to ‘sell’ the company well. You have find ways to keep bringing in new people with new ideas to remain competitive,” simplifies Simpson.

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