Praise be Ford

November 3, 1995

Ken Mortimer argues that staff development in the car company giant is a prerequisite to survival in the brave new world of technology.

Twenty-five years ago Ford was known as one of the best business schools around because it supplied industry with skilled and talented managers who knew how to run a company.

Ford has continued to develop its management talent although fewer managers leave because of the global opportunities available to them with Ford and the extensive opportunities for them to gain degrees and develop. A staggering 1,100 employees in Britain are studying part-time degrees today compared with 60 in 1992.

One of the main reasons for the increase was the discovery that in comparison with Germany or the United States, Ford Britain had fewer engineers with degrees. The company immediately set plans to increase the percentage from per cent in 1992 to 77 per cent degree-qualified by 1999, and at masters level from 5 per cent to 25 per cent over the same period.

Ford has recognised that continuous professional development becomes an absolute prerequisite for survival rather than a "nice-to-have" commodity. The company is linked to universities in 1,058 part-time degree programmes, 726 at undergraduate level and the rest at masters' and above. This does not include the "one-off" degrees or the 250 self-select Employee Development and Assistance Programme degrees sponsored by the unions and management through a jointly-managed fund. Neither does it include the European plans to double the number of employees studying for part-time degrees in Germany and in Belgium.

The Ford of Britain degree programme is part of a worldwide initiative whereby 5,000 employees are studying part-time for bachelors, masters or PhD degrees. The globalisation of Ford in January this year has led to a rapid increase in transnational employee movements and a requirement to enable transferability of part-time degree studies. Ford is now planning a worldwide systems engineering degree based on the highly successful Loughborough University MSc in advanced automotive engineering. The Loughborough degree, which was launched in 1987 for 15 high-flying engineers, this year recruited 56 engineers from Germany and Britain to study manufacturing and product development. More than 120 engineers have graduated from the "Ford flagship degree" programme and many of them have been promoted to senior management positions. Many of the innovations in the 1994 car of the year, the Mondeo, were developed by engineers with Loughborough degrees.

The degree is one of three masters programmes offered to Ford engineering graduates Europe-wide. The other two are an integrated graduate development scheme MSc at Hertfordshire University and a research degree in engineering quality improvement at Bradford. Approximately 100 employees are also studying for part-time MBAs with Henley Management College, Warwick, Anglia Polytechnic and Valencia polytechnic universities.

Previously many of Ford's professionals had Higher National Certificates or Diplomas but these were obtained 20 to 30 years ago. When Ford recognised the need to "upskill" its professional work force it expanded its already well formed relationships with the University of East London, Anglia Polytechnic University and Liverpool John Moores' University. (That is not forgetting Coventry University near Jaguar where the same process was taking place.) These four universities used the accreditation of prior experience and learning (APEL) which enabled engineers to credit their company training courses and learning experiences in their jobs towards their degree studies.

Imagine a typical 42-year-old with a spouse, house, family and overtime committing to 2.5 years of hard study for a degree - and yet more than 700 of them have done it so far. What is more 85 per cent of them have obtained first or 2.1 degrees - a remarkable performance demonstrating commitment, motivation and ability.

The company has also for more than 30 years recruited 150-250 graduates per year with only two exceptions. It has approximately 120 sponsored sandwich-course students in engineering and business at any time, developing interest further down in the school system by sponsoring competitions or special projects.

The graduate looks forward to sponsorship with their professional association (Institute of Cost and Management Accounts sponsors 100; Institute of Personnel Management 40; Institutes of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering 250). After three years to gain associate membership and learn something of the job the graduate is encouraged to study for an MSc or MBA.

Ford sponsors research through British (and European) universities with one British university, Nottingham, receiving close to Pounds 1 million a year for its work in engineering and psychology research. Research, recruitment and education are closely linked in partnership arrangements throughout Ford worldwide with a committee linking global Ford university sponsors every two weeks by audio lines. Ford has recently sponsored four engineering professorships at the universities of East London, Bradford, Anglia Polytechnic and John Moores bringing the total to ten sponsored professorship in Britain.

The academic-industry links deliberately percolate Ford's organisation at all levels. This year three honorary doctorates are being awarded to senior directors who have contributed to building the bridge between university and industry. But the links extend further. Many of Ford's training courses are provided by university lecturers working permanently on Ford sites throughout Europe. The reason: lecturers are more up to date, they are also cheaper.

Ford has integrated universities into its human resource development strategies and invested strongly for the future in an educated workforce but is there a downside? Apparently not. There are the odd occasions when relatively junior lecturers contact senior managers for trivial tasks/information and this causes embarrassment. Ford is a highly integrated organisation geared to making and selling a product, whereas universities produce diversely educated people from faculties which do not need to integrate their efforts.

Sometimes therefore universities are a little less coordinated than Ford. If there are arguments they are never about money but rather about delivery systems, lecture times or assessment methods. The results speak for themselves. Ford has a 2-3 per cent drop-out rate among its students compared with 40-50 per cent in general for other part-time degrees. Ford students are of course a captive population and the company supports them in a myriad ways. Non-completion may hinder promotion prospects.

One of the most intangible benefits to measure is the long term effect on productivity or morale. In terms of productivity Ford has many examples of cost savings made by degree students. A saving of $500,000 was made when Anglia Polytechnic University took over training for the electronic engine control module design development from the University of Michigan. In terms of morale many students show a recommitment to the company and a fresh burst of enthusiasm.

These findings come from a three-year evaluation study of Ford degrees by the University of Lancaster. University relationships are a significant and expanding part of business and will be around as long as continuous professional development of staff is a major tenet of Ford's policy.

Ken Mortimer is manager of education programmes (Europe) for Ford.

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