For our latest Network Insider interview, we caught up with Catherine Collins, Network Manager of First Polymer Training Skillnet to find out how the networks works and the impact it has on the sectors they operate in.
Name of Network: First Polymer Training Skillnet
Number of members: 100
Sector(s) covered: Engineering, Life Sciences & Medical Devices, Manufacturing and Pharmaceutical
Year established: 1999
Please describe what your network does and how it came about?
Ibec together with a number of employers in the polymer sector identified significant skills gaps back in 1999. Luckily at the same time, Skillnet Ireland was being established and a successful application was made to set up First Polymer Training Skillnet. Our main objective was to provide much needed sector specific training and progression routes for those working in the polymer industry. We now have our own fully equipped technical training centre in Athlone, the only one of its kind in Ireland supporting industry. Training is also provided inhouse on member company sites and programmes range from polymer processing, materials and maintenance to polymer design and validation.
Can you outline one key way your network impacted positively on the sector?
As a network, we have a very long and well-established relationship with the sector and are seen as the ‘go to’ provider for polymer training, networking and also as a knowledge hub. One key impact has been the development of a full progression path from Levels 5 to 8, where no part-time accredited polymer programmes were previously available. These programmes have been designed specifically with the industry employee in mind to be as flexible as possible and to really help address the challenges of working full-time and completing significant programmes of learning. These programmes also allow the employer to recruit from within for new opportunities in their organisations in a very competitive jobs market.
What has been the most transformative initiative in your sector in the last year?
In late 2018 we developed a new strategy for our network with our steering group and this has really driven plans forward to grow and evolve over the next 3 years; we now have a very clear picture of where we want to be and how to get there.
The most transformative recent initiative in the sector has been the development of the new Hons B. Engineering in Polymer Processing which is accredited by IT Sligo. This new programme now means for the first time we have a clear progression route from Levels 6 through to Level 8. This further facilitates progression into polymer engineering roles where a Level 8 qualification is needed.
What new trends do you see emerging within your industry?
Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are having a significant impact on our sector as they are with most others. In order to help our members, prepare for the ‘Workplace of the Future’, we have new robots installed at our training centre and are providing more automation-based training. For 2020 we also plan to ‘network’ the injection moulding machines at our centre to show members the significant benefits of leveraging their process data and how to successfully implement true connectivity.
We have also found an increased focus on providing flexible working arrangements and learning opportunities for staff in order to help with recruitment and retention, which are both a major issue for employers. In response, together with our promoting organisation Polymer Technology Ireland (Ibec), we set up a Polymer HR forum with ongoing events to share best practice and support in these areas.
What skills do you think are most important for a small business owner/manager?
A small business owner has to be a true multitasker and cover all bases to make their business a success. Very often they don’t have the time or resources to look at their own self-development or sometimes even that of their own staff. This is where joining a Skillnet Network can really help, by lessening the isolation that many small business owners feel and making training accessible and affordable. Seeing how other businesses cope with similar issues and developing your staff with the key skills they need, can really be invaluable and gives that small business every chance of being a real success.
Do you have any advice for a business that is considering joining a Skillnet network?
I would strongly recommend any business to join a Skillnet Network and to find the network that best meets their needs. The benefits of joining are substantial and help facilitate a business in growing their talent pipeline, to network and share ideas with other businesses in their sector or region. A Skillnet Network will work with you to provide a tailored solution that will drive your business forward. The flexibility and responsiveness of the Skillnet Ireland model is really unique and truly enterprise led.