A passion for skills

Listening to Ian speak about his role as Commercial Director of the National Skills Academy Process Industries (the Academy), you get the feeling of someone really being ‘at home’ in his career. Having held this position for five years, his enthusiasm is still infectious.

My role enables me to engage in my passion for skills within the science based industries, including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, biotechnology, chemicals, downstream petroleum and polymers. I’m delighted with the job, which also allows me to stay abreast of technical and economic developments within the sector as a whole.”

Despite his love for training, Ian still considers himself “a scientist at heart”. After leaving the North East to gain his first degree and PhD in Biochemistry at Salford University, Ian spent over 20 years in Nottingham working as a Research Biochemist for the Boots Company, and was part of a team that brought Ibuprofen to the market. A takeover by BASF of Boots Pharmaceuticals meant time spent in Ludwigshafen, Germany, from where he transferred to BASF at Seal Sands, Middlesborough in 2001, a return to the North East.

Having spent a number of years ‘on the bench’, Ian opted for change in career while retaining his link with pharmaceuticals, and joined the Pharmaceutical & Speciality Cluster, now NEPIC. NEPIC was one of the partners collaborating to establish the Academy and, while working with Stan Higgins and colleagues, Ian was involved in promoting the awareness of the venture, “so it was a natural transition”. (NEPIC remains a major supporter of the Academy, which manages NEPIC’s ‘skills agenda’.) A brief stint back in industry working for Aesica Pharmaceuticals in Cramlington eventually led Ian to joining the Academy in Darlington in 2008. “I do try to maintain my technical awareness through membership of the Biochemical Society and through contact with colleagues in industry,” says Ian, “but the challenges presented to the Academy are very fulfilling.”

The key objective of the Academy is to help in up-skilling the UK’s Process Industry Sector to ensure that it remains competitive with the rest of the world. It works closely with a number of accredited training providers across the UK, such as TOPRA, to conduct its programmes, and enjoys significant employer engagement activity across the North East, and indeed nationwide.

One of its most ambitious and successful programmes is in the Process Safety Management Programme. With input from the Health & Safety Executive and other partners, this programme aims to improve the safety at sites across the UK.

Changes in ownership post-ICI in the Tees Valley led to a reduction in the number of apprenticeships within the sector. However, the Academy has worked with employers, most notably Sembcorp, to fill this gap through the highly successful Tees Valley Apprenticeship Programme, and the recently announced Sembcorp Skills Development Programme.

At the other end of the scale, the Academy has recently launched a new leadership training programme, ‘Leading in the Process Industries’. This will run across the region and throughout the UK to help develop leadership skills for the future.

Companies’ attitudes to training and development vary from SMEs to large global operators, and also within the various sub-sectors of the Process Industry. While some SMEs within the biotechnology field are investing in skills programmes, some large pharma companies have reduced training.

There is no doubt that the financial downturn had an immediate impact on skills development, with employers reducing training budgets as one of the first areas to achieve savings. “The biggest challenge remains convincing employers that skills development can result in a substantial return on investment,” admits Ian. Luckily, more enlightened employers realise that it is essential to maintain a skilled workforce to be ready for the up-turn.

Ian’s passion for learning is reserved for work. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of a new Academy school (no relation to the Academy) in Durham. Here, Ian helps to promote the success of the students and staff, “hopefully leading to new recruits in our sector.” Outside of education and training, Ian and his wife are enthusiastic golfers.


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