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Back to school at Viridor college

13th May 2015

In the latest edition of Materials Recycling World (MRW) magazine, Viridor’s HR & Regulatory Director, Simon Catford, talks about a pioneering partnership with Edge Hill University and how it is helping the company develop its business leaders of the future. 

A new class of engineers, operational, commercial and corporate colleagues are packing their pencil cases and getting set to go back to school this month as part of a pioneering partnership dubbed “Viridor college”. With backpacks over their shoulders, the latest cohort of on-the-job learners from across the UK will undertake a two-year foundation degree aimed at realising their management and leadership potential.

An integral component of Viridor’s £20m business transformation programme, the partnership with Edge Hill University, Lancashire, launched in April 2012, is delivered by senior lecturers at business locations across three business operating regions. The programme, a direct response to changing business need, reflects the company’s ‘core behavioural competencies’ and the skills required to be an effective manager and leader.

The business chose Edge Hill – UK University of the Year – following a year-long review of potential partners. “In addition to its 130 years history as an innovative, successful and distinctive higher education provider, Edge Hill demonstrated a strong international profile around work-based professional learning with both public and private sector employers” said Chris Whittle, Viridor’s Head of Training and Development.

The programme, geared to deliver real-time application in the workplace, sees students like Commercial Manager, Amber Greenhalgh develop core management skills including culture, values and ethics; people and the law; finance and the law; and managing change. More than that though, the programme targets key skills linked to leadership and business improvement such as employee engagement, driving commerciality and leadership.

For staff like Amber, employed with the business since 2010, it has allowed her to build on her first degree from Sheffield University. Equipped with the skills and experience the programme offered, Amber progressed firstly to key regional leadership role where she boosted strategic sales by 10%, and is now UK sales lead on Viridor’s transformation programme – Project Enterprise.

“Today’s modern resources and renewable energy sector is far removed from the traditional waste sector of old. It’s a sector rapidly changing and it’s that pace of change that the degree programme is designed to meet. It’s equipping people like me with the skills we need to be the next generation of managers and leaders which , in turn, will help develop our teams, our propositions and drive a profitable, sustainable business”, said Amber.

More than that, the bespoke programme flexibly wraps around work and personal commitments. Each of the eight modules take seven weeks to complete, with students exposed to one half-days interactive teaching each week. Assessment is by report, presentations, essays and reflective learning.

That’s important, say’s Viridor’s HR & Regulatory Director, Simon Catford, when attracting the age and gender demographics the company is seeking to develop. Viridor’s parent company, Pennon Group, is, for example, targeting a minimum of 25% female representation in senior management positions across its businesses.

“Whilst aligning our people development with the needs of a rapidly changing business is, of course, vital, we needed to know that any programme would work around the work and home life commitments people have. That’s why the programme allows colleagues to pause and resume learning around key life points such as maternity and paternity leave, bereavement and illness.”

And the programme, now on its fourth intake, is delivering results. Some 41% of foundation degree candidates are female – a figure the business is keen to develop. Particularly impressive against a backdrop of an employment profile in line with the sector trends where over 80% staff are male.

But it’s not just commercial and corporate roles the programme is targeting. Staff like Electrical Engineer, Dean Wedge, are benefitting too. Entering the sector as a modern apprentice, Dean worked across the UK business and was quickly identified for his potential.

He said “the foundation degree is great and I jumped at the idea. I wish that I had done something like this when I was in school, but it is good to have the opportunity now. The impact has been considerable; my experience, knowledge and aspects of what I have done are being noticed. It’s helped me think about theory models, and about things like communication and eye to eye contact. My line manager told me about it and I jumped at the chance of getting involved. The big advantage is that this course is bespoke to Viridor. It really does make a difference in the way that a university can work with a private company.”

The programme was launched against a backdrop of one of the UK’s longest and deepest economic recessions. Why? Viridor’s board sponsor, Simon Catford, explains:

“The UK’s resources sector employs 103,000 people and we generate £3.8bn in gross value added (GVA) each year. That’s a big deal and recognition of the increasingly important role we play in Britain’s green economy. An even more circular economy, where the UK increasingly re-uses and recycles the resources it already has, could help generate 50,000 new jobs with £10bn investment, boosting GDP by £3bn.

“In 2014/15 Viridor alone completed c.£875m investment in UK energy recovery and recycling infrastructure, releasing over one million tonnes of essential new resource recovery and landfill diversion capacity to Britain. That new infrastructure – part of a £1.5bn programme in energy and resources technology requires a new generation of managers and leaders.

“But more than that, our sector is fundamentally realigning. We’ve moved from the language of waste to the rhetoric of resource, recognising that waste is a zero value concept. Not only does circularity make environmental sense, it makes business sense too where commercial enterprises increasingly recognise they are stronger in partnership. Our latest £25m investment in the UK’s most advanced glass recycling facility is a great example – linking front end collections and world-class technology with the needs of Scotland’s largest export – the whisky sector. It’s the kind of new business model our managers need to support.

“So whilst our positive decision to accelerate investment in our people programmes was against a backdrop of strong economic headwinds, it positions us in a much stronger place as we move from recession to sustained recovery. Our new leaders are better placed to respond to the quality and commercial demands of a global marketplace.”

And what of the results? Some forty-six supervisors and managers have progressed through the programme, with each providing a presentation to the board of directors. In addition to a key colleagues progressing within the business, employee retention of course members stands at 91% – some 10% higher that the business average.

“We’re seeing great results” added Mr. Catford. “The programme is developing smart, talented, confident and engaged managers and leaders who in turn are strengthening their teams. That’s critically important to Viridor at a time when the business is working with Gallup to drive engagement.

“Our people are our greatest resource. That is not just a cliché, it’s good common sense. The world’s top performing organisations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives positive business outcomes. Engaged employees and high-performing teams help drive safety, productivity, profitability and customer focus. The foundation degree programme is a key component of that success.”

It’s success that works both ways says Edge Hill University Vice-Chancellor, John Cater. “The strategic partnership with Viridor is an important development in the business school’s ambition to work with private sector organisations and support them in their drive to have an appropriately skilled and educated workforce by offering University accredited programmes directly shaped to meet individual and company needs.

“Such programmes need to be focused on their impact on individuals, which in turn will impact positively on their ability to carry out their role effectively. The University sees the partnership with Viridor as also offering opportunities for joint research and knowledge exchange, again focused on the workplace and improving the skills of employees. “

Looking to the future, Mr. Catford adds “as a sector we’ve thrown away old thinking about waste and are recognising it’s real value as a resource. Making this happen remains a real challenge. But that challenge for change is strengthened by investment in people, our next generation of managers and leaders.”

And for people like Amber, would she recommend the programme to others? “Most definitely. It’s been a life changing learning curve for me and the more people that can benefit from it the better. To those thinking of applying I say pack your pencil case and get back to school.”

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