Not many years ago the journey for young Teessiders was one-way: college, university or training centre followed by a hopeful look around for a local job and then on the first train out to a more promising long-term future.
Now the landscape has changed and the challenge for major employers like Nifco UK in Stockton is to grow using local talent and skills by flying the flag for Teesside and making sure everyone sees the potential in the region, creating a careers cycle where young people full of the right information choose the right course, then are snapped up by the right employers who provide a long-term career which means the next generation join that cycle full of optimism after the example that has been set for them.
Nifco MD Mike Matthews might be the perfect example of how successful that journey can be. In the early Eighties this young apprentice, brought up on a council estate in Darlington, got his first job as a toolmaker at Elite Engineering before joining Nifco – then Elta Plastics – in 1986 in the same role. Hard work and enthusiasm meant he was soon spotted and moved into sales in 1988 and by 2008 he had climbed the ladder to Managing Director, a role he has held ever since, adding European responsibilities in 2012.
That career path is impressive, but completely achievable if the mindset is right and the bosses are smart enough to recognise the people who might one day be leaders themselves and, like Mike, be the influences that are helping create this Teesside optimism.
“There will always be challenges, but there are always opportunities as well,” Mike told us.
“We are a key market for nations like Japan, where 50% of its total investment in Europe comes to the UK, and with major Japanese influences like us and Fujifilm based here on Teesside, it shows the appeal of the region for major international trade. Now, as we move out of Europe and cast our eye further afield we have to remember such long-term, historical relationships and present ourselves to attract every possible opportunity and be masters of our own destiny.
“We are always very aware – and proud – of the effect what we do at home and abroad has here on Teesside and I wouldn’t do my job if it didn’t benefit the business here. We are one of the survivors as the number of global suppliers changes for giants like Ford and Teesside is a survivor as well – still with a worldwide reputation as a trader in a trading nation.”
Such enthusiasm from someone with a global outlook is genuinely encouraging, and it can be found throughout the region. If we can all learn to shout about it as loudly as Mike Matthews, we will be taking another huge step forward, and that can only be more good news for the next generation debating whether to stay or leave.
“There is so much opportunity to influence that decision,” says Mike.
“If you look at my sector – automotive – today, technology is about ten to fifteen per cent of the value of a car, but by about 2025 it will be up to fifty per cent as we move towards more autonomous vehicles.
“That same sort of scenario is going to cascade into other areas of our lives, so I am delighted that the Tees Valley has a very strong technology sector, which is already asking why places like Boho shouldn’t be as synonymous with technology as Silicon Valley.
“To take that lead role we know we are capable of, we must also look after the traditional craftsman skills like welding, fabrication, slinging, electricians and toolmakers, which was where I started my career. That also needs collaboration, and I think working closely within further education will be crucial as we map out a future for young people and see how the region can benefit hugely from a much clearer education policy that is fit for purpose and tackles all of our challenges for today and tomorrow.”
Control over its own destiny through devolution is something Teesside has deserved for many years and it is finally ours, meaning that business leaders like Mike can plan even further ahead, untangled from miles of red tape that stretched back to London.
“Devolution in business is working very well for Teesside, and I believe devolution in education will be just as big an advantage,” he says.
“For every success we achieve as part of the deal and each endeavour we make, it brings us one step closer to increased autonomy. It is like gaining the trust of a parent – you have to show that you are capable, responsible and won’t let them down and we are doing that so well because, as the Chamber says and Teesside is proving, together we grow stronger.”