Chris Long takes a look at Strata Manufacturing PJSC, based in Al Ain, which employs mostly highly skilled women on the production line.
The most visible benefit of commercial aviation is, of course, in the explosion of travelling opportunities for a growing proportion of the world population. Alongside that, the industry has created of huge range of employment opportunities, which historically were centred around aircraft manufacturers and operators. With the trend to outsource to global suppliers, fuelled in part by offset agreements, the prosperity that high tech manufacturing can bring has now spread the benefits to a much broader demographic, frequently accompanied by significant social change.
UAE Vision 2030 The UAE has long recognised that dependence solely on fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long term. The government-led initiative is to invest massively in long-term projects which are adapted to the national strengths. The Emirates have a relatively modest population base, so the hi-tech industries are particularly attractive, relying as they do on a highly trained and skilled workforce rather than huge numbers of unskilled labourers. Whilst expatriate labour is necessary to establish these hi-tech industries, the Vision 2030 aims at employing local nationals in increasing numbers to reach the highest possible levels of national autonomy in the labour market.
Strata Strata Manufacturing PJSC, based in Al Ain, manufactures advanced composite aerostructures for the major OEMs such as Airbus, Boeing and ATR. Flap track fairings, spoilers, ailerons, and empannages are provided. This demands very high levels of precision and consistent quality. To produce these units, the manufacturing team must be skilled in a range of disciplines, from carbon fibre layup, to proper use of the autoclaves, through to painstaking product finishing. All the processes are subject to the highest standards of testing and quality controls. These are not straightforward skills, so a robust recruiting and training system had to be put into place.
As Mohammed AlBlooshi, Advisor to the Chairman and CEO, and who heads learning, training and development at Strata explained, the programme started in 2010, and the first apprentices were recruited locally from Al Ain. Given that this was a completely new world for many of the new entrants, there was a very steep learning curve. What broke with tradition was that some 80% were women between 20-35 years of age, many of whom had children. This required a major shift in attitudes, as the principles of time-keeping, longer working hours, refreshing basic Math and Science and acquiring highly specialised and technical skills were not the norm for this population group. Certainly the first steps were not easy, and expectations were modest. Now, however, the notion has really taken off, and, as one would expect with the local culture, word of mouth passed on to family and friends by current employees has boosted recruiting enormously.
So, what is the process through which the novice apprentices can acquire these new skills? Johannes (Noddy) Naude, Technical Training Manager, sees the new arrivals start their training at the UAE University in Al Ain, where they spend four months of academic refresher and basic skills - adapting to the demands of punctuality, understanding the materials, learning how to drill through various materials and so on. This is followed by 20 weeks of very specific training in carbon fibre layup. This is carried out by Lockheed Martin specialists, who also introduce not just the technical knowledge, but explain and insist on the adoption of essential working practices. Once qualified for the in-house category of “Strata Aerostructures Technician”, they can then join the team at the Strata facility, where they have to complete 1700 hours of closely-supervised work within the first year before being signed off and given an employment contract.
Performance Nick Cooper, COO at Strata, has the responsibility of overseeing both the production and delivery of the products. He is very well aware that there is zero tolerance of faults in production; the OEMs will simply not accept anything other than the highest standard. What he has noticed is the engagement that this developing team has demonstrated in the role. A pride in performance has emerged in which aiming for, and achieving, those demanding levels of quality is evident in these newly-qualified technicians. They work alongside a wide range of other nationalities, and are taking their place entirely on merit. As one would hope, there are some who are already exhibiting the qualities sought for team leaders, and that fits well with the concept of a long-term career, with each graduate following a transparent Career Development Plan (CDP) as would be the case in any comparable global facility.
Last Word AlBlooshi saw the start of this programme, and at the time there was modest expectation of the acceptance of this new role in his community. The concept of Emiratisation was fine - but how would it work in practice? He is delighted that there is now a realistic goal of a national contribution of 50% of the work team by the end of 2015. That this project has been so wholeheartedly accepted and is flourishing is a source of tremendous pride - only surpassed, he believes, by the surge of pride shown by the families at the Graduation Ceremony which sees their relatives take their place in this hi-tech world.