Byline: PETER McCUSKER
IT'S difficult to tally but for years many regional businesses have cried out for skilled staff, despite the North East having the highest unemployment rate in the country. With manufacturing still the region's lifeblood this inability to recruit skilled staff has tethered the dynamism of many a business.
But there are signs of a shifting of the region's tectonic plates with the Adonis North East Economic Review highlighting the need for maximum focus on apprenticeships, skills and training.
In the meantime many of the region's engineering businesses are tapping into an increasingly large pool of skilled talent - engineers and other skilled staff - from the rapidly diminishing ranks of the armed forces.
Each year, more than 20,000 individuals leave the forces. This figure is set to dramatically increase as the Ministry of Defence plans to make 54,000 additional redundancies before 2015.
One business which is frustrated by a shortage of skilled staff is electric vehicle component designer and manufacturer Sevcon, based in Gateshead.
After consolidating during the 2008 recession when it saw revenues almost halve to PS13m it has bounced back with annual sales of PS20m but says its growth plans are being frustrated by manpower skills issues.
It has searched the globe for high-quality electronic and software engineers for its Team Valley headquarters and recently set up its own PS200,000 bursary scheme to fund six students through university, with a guaranteed job on graduation.
Last week it hosted an event for like-minded businesses and forces' employment experts looking to take advantage of the new wave of leavers, with a particular focus of the members of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).
Sevcon president and chief executive officer Matt Boyle said: "We have managed to recruit engineers from Columbia, China and elsewhere but we find it incredibly difficult getting engineers to the region.
"The British Army is one of the largest and best trainers in the country. It produces people who have relevant technical and higher level people skills and these attributes are ideal for a business like ourselves.
"We will be now looking to recruit skilled ex-forces employees such as those serving in REME."
Gateshead-based Responsive Engineering employs over 180 across three sites on the Team Valley and has annual sales of PS15m.
It provides manufacturing services including machining, welding, pressing, assembly, testing as well as laser and waterjet cutting, mainly to the oil and gas industry and was recently bought by the North East Reece Group.
Responsive Engineering managing director Peter Bernard said: "I am one of a number of business owners in the region trying to recruit to overcome the acute skills issues we are facing as a business and also as a region.
"Businesses such as mine are suffering from the inability to recruit the right quality staff at the moment.
"We need experienced people with particular skills and we see great opportunity in using the able and skilled engineering staff leaving the armed forces."
Business leaders also in attendance at last week's' event were Bill McGawley, managing director of the Newcastle-based TDR Group, Richard Bowden, of the National Australia Bank, Martin Dowd, managing director of car parts supplier Randstad and Andrew Kelly of ADK recruitment consultants.
The armed forces were represented by officers from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers REME, and associated military support organisations.
Lt Col Ian Adkins, of 102 Battalion REME, who is a chartered engineer, explained that of its soldiers repair, recover, maintain and modify most of the army's equipment from SA80 rifles to Challenger 2 tanks, and from Land Rovers to Apache helicopters.