Go on, Steel yourself

Big organisations are fighting to attract the best from a limited pool of `flexible' people. Meg Carter sizes up the inducements on offer from British Steel

To many, the steel industry still conjures up images of molten metal and blue-collar workers sweating on the shop floor. However, the industry is working hard to update its image. Its latest initiative is a pounds 3m investment in the newest gallery at the Science Museum in London, Challenge of Materials, which has cost pounds 4.5m to develop and has just opened to the public.

The gallery explores everyday materials, examining their origins and their potential. At its heart sits a spectacular steel and glass bridge which spans the main hall of the museum. Other exhibits include a steel wedding dress and a Bakelite coffin. The idea is to blend science and industry with architecture, fashion and art.

Visitors, in particular children, will be encouraged to use the interactive exhibits which include an audio- visual representation of a modern steelworks and job profiles of different roles within the steel industry, from marketing director to apprentice, from European sales executive to personnel manager and metallurgist.

The sponsorship - the largest to date involving a UK museum - is far more than a flamboyant gesture, insists Joanna Biddolph, spokeswoman for the UK Steel Association, which represents 95 per cent of UK steel-producing companies. The aim is to change the industry's image and educate the population, both today's consumers and tomorrow's steel industry job applicants.

"The industry is still widely perceived in old-fashioned, outdated terms," Ms Biddolph explains. "Today, it's a high-tech business with few people now working on the shop floor." Job losses and denationalisation influenced the perceptions of many, and these have been passed down to the younger generation - many of whom think steel is an industry in decline. Yet steel is all around us, says Ms Biddolph. "People take it so much for granted, but its impact is wherever you look - from clothing to cars and your home."

The UK steel industry employs some 60,000 people. Like other sectors of manufacturing, it is facing increased competition for skilled employees. "It's not so much that we want to recruit a different type of person, but that we are more high tech - and international - than we were before, and we want more people to understand the opportunities we can offer," she says.

It is easy to think of steel as being a traditional heavy industry, but the pace of development within the business is very fast, says Mike Hitchcock of British Steel. "Seventy per cent of steels used today have been developed over the past decade. Our products are becoming more sophisticated and high tech, as our customers demand lighter materials."

Both British Steel and its customers need to attract highly trained people, he adds. "Part of the process involves getting youngsters to want to work in the industry and to be aware of its potential."

British Steel employs 40,000 in the UK and a further 10,000 overseas, where it is expanding, with new plants in the US and the Far East. Last year, British Steel recruited 180 graduates; this year it expects to take on between 180 and 200. "Our primary aim is to attract metallurgists and engineers," Mr Hitchcock says.

In return, companies like his can offer steady career development, he claims. "People tend to stay in steel for a long time. There's a good career path." British Steel is now attempting to narrow the gulf between its blue- and white-collar employees. It has also established a reputation for investing in training - it spends, on average, pounds 1,000 a year on each employee.

School packs and college liaison are already essential activities; the Science Museum sponsorship is an investment in a future generation of employees, Mr Hitchcock adds.

It is the same story at other steel industry businesses. Accountancy, marketing, product development, design and customer relations are just some of the job categories today's steel companies need to fill, says Simon Bedford at Twil, the UK's largest steel wire maker and a division of the Belgian group Bekaert. "The key challenge is making people think steel is a worthwhile business to get into," he adds.

"In line with other recruiters, we are no longer seeking single-issue people - we want flexible people. As it is becoming an increasingly international business, we have a particular need for good linguists. However, we are having to compete for these against accountancy firms, marketing and design companies."

Thirty per cent of those working in today's steel industry work in companies accredited as Investors in People - five times the national average, Ms Biddolph points out. The industry already has its own industry training organisation, Steel Training Limited, to raise the profile of training within the business. Young people can move into the industry through the Steel Industry Modern Apprenticeship; National Vocational Qualifications and national traineeship programmes are also available.

The Science Museum sponsorship provides a unique and accessible shop front for the industry - one that businesses hope will help sow the seeds now for their future recruitment needs. It will also be a platform for other information and education initiatives including a new career opportunities guide to be published by the UK Steel Association in the autumn.

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