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Workforce development: Breaking Bad style

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Anyone paying more than cursory attention to popular culture will have heard that Breaking Bad is coming to a conclusion. It’s been cited alongside The Wire as some of the best TV ever made. Although I ran a chemical plant before I came to Brompton, I’m not – I would like to make clear – going to follow Walter White’s career path. But it’s interesting to watch how he mentors his young partner, Jesse, who progresses from flunking chemistry to running a lab. Later on, he has to train a new assistant, Todd, and tells him to “pay attention and apply yourself – that’s all I can ask.”

Last month, I took up an appointment as a Commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), the government’s employment and skills experts. Why? Because I do seem to have one thing in common with Walter White – I feel that the skills and talents of our people, and how we use them, is the basis for our future prosperity as a nation.

Brompton just wouldn’t work without the skills of our staff, who make around three-quarters of the parts that make up each bike. (The rest are sourced elsewhere.) The engineering staff also make the machines that make the components. And when you add to that the complete control we have over not only manufacture and assembly but also testing, design, research and development, sales, and accounts, we require a breadth of skills across the factory but also a depth of skill in our individuals. 

While our suppliers sell us products to our exact specifications, no member of staff walks through the door completely familiar with their new job. So we take time to train them, and train them well. It’s not altruism, because we’ve found that embedding training deep in the culture of the organisation is one of the best ways of protecting our Intellectual Property. By training in-house and upskilling in-house we’ve developed innovation in-house, making it very difficult for our competitors to extract as it’s written into our organisational DNA. It’s another reason why keeping production in the UK makes sense for us.

Given how important staff development is, I was disappointed to read in one of the most recent UKCES publications that rates of training have been falling in the UK since the 1990s. There’s a small silver lining: training held up during the recession. It’s just that it has been on a gradual decline for longer than that.

The kind of deep, specialised training that really makes a difference is best done by employers. We need to play an active role in training our people so they can work across their specialisms as well as within them. At Brompton we know that if we do this too quickly it can dilute the knowledge in the business, but we also know how important it is to continuing our success, so it isn’t something we scrimp.

As well as making sure the day-to-day job is done as well as it can be, workforce development helps deal with changes in technology. Changes are going on for all of us, in every sector. While this might be most obvious for businesses in the digital economy, it’s certainly the case in manufacturing too – even construction has seen amazing changes since I started work. The only way our businesses can keep up with this pace of change is by investing in the skills we have in our workforce. Otherwise we will be left behind – and as a keen cyclist, that’s not where I want to be.

Brompton bicycles are made from over 1,200 individual parts. That means each part has to work with all the parts that surround it. The epigram for one of the first episodes of The Wire was “… and all the pieces matter.” This is true whether you are constructing a bicycle – or the team that makes them.

Will Butler-Adams is the managing director of Brompton Bicycle.

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