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Allan Cook CBE talks about his career and the Talent Retention Solution

Posted on Tue, 28 Feb 2012 11:20 by DeeDee Doke, Editor of Recruiter
Allan Cook CBE talks about his career and the Talent Retention Solution images

Allen Cook CBE talks about his career and the Talent Retention SolutionAfter nearly 40 years in advanced manufacturing and engineering (AM&E), Allan Cook CBE has no career regrets. He’s worked for many of the biggest names in automotive, aerospace and defence industries on household name programmes such as Eurofighter. Now he is chairman of engineering and design consultancy WS Atkins and defence electronics company SELEX Galileo, among other high-profile corporate governance roles. And he’s a proud, passionate engineer.

“I wouldn’t change my career for anything,” Cook says. “If somebody turned around and said to me, ‘Start all over again’, I can’t see me doing anything differently. I might do it better, and I might do it faster, but I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

You might ask: aside from serving as a peerless advocate for engineering careers, what does a top engineer/senior executive have to do with recruitment and talent issues? In Cook’s case, plenty. Throughout his high-flying engineering career, Cook has seen firsthand the difference that top calibre talent makes to the sector — and what happens when a downturn forces significant talent out of a business.

So a major priority for him now as chairman of the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering & Manufacturing (Semta) and the Skills and Jobs Retention Group is ensuring that AM&E interests in the UK retain their talent, as he tells Recruiter during a meeting in Atkins’s offices in London.

No discussion about the UK engineering sector today is complete without a reference to its dwindling pools of AM&E skills. Paradoxically, at the same time that major engineering employers such as BAE Systems, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the services have announced cutbacks in their workforces, other employers in the field have significant jobs to fill.

Following the autumn 2010 release of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which outlined potential cutbacks of thousands of MoD and services personnel, as well as cuts to defence programmes, Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) Vince Cable tapped Cook to lead an initiative and a working group to prevent erosion of the UK’s existing engineering skills and talent base. Concern was high that “the skills that had been so carefully nurtured over many, many years would actually be lost in this reduction due to market forces and fiscal constraints on spending, particularly in the defence area”, Cook explains.

In July 2011, on the back of a £450k investment by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), came the launch of the Talent Retention Solution (TRS). TRS is a web-based service that supports redeployment and recruitment across AM&E industries including aerospace, automotive, civil engineering, defence, energy, marine, manufacturing, nuclear, power generation and renewables. The website holds details of engineering staff at risk of redundancy, and engineering vacancies at other organisations.

A national service, TRS’s origins stemmed from a free online recruitment portal that had been created by the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium and Winchester Consulting for aerospace and defence businesses in the South-East. Winchester also built TRS.

As of last month, TRS is self-funded, through its major employer sponsors (see Key Facts, p28) and any participating company with 500 or more employees. Cook won’t say how much the major employers contribute to the service, allowing only: “It’s a very cost-effective solution. The fees you’re talking about, the recruitment for two or three engineers would cover the cost of the fee they would pay, and companies will willingly pay that sort of amount to become part of the scheme. Why wouldn’t they?” 

"My father was an engineer, and I’ve always been attracted by making things work or making things work better”

Starting the momentum

In late January, 352 companies had registered to use the system, which also had 719 registered candidates and 526 live vacancies. The number of employer subscriptions was about a third of the way to the 1,000 that the UKCES site reports was targeted for this point in time. “Have we made enough progress? No,” he says. “Are we continuing to make progress? Absolutely. The momentum is picking up.”

While professing to be “delighted with the progress we’ve made”, Cook says he would like to see TRS achieve greater profile in the marketplace, particularly among small-and-medium sized enterprises (SMEs), those with fewer than 500 workers and for whom the service is free. Of the UK’s estimated 70,000 AM&E companies, Cook says “probably at least 50,000 of those employ 10 people or less”. Clearly, SMEs stand to benefit significantly through the no-cost involvement on offer and the reduced recruitment costs they can realise through the system.

“So anything we can do to encourage companies to register, to put their requirements on the database, to put people who are put at risk on the database will be a benefit for lots of organisations,” he says.

“Everybody wins,” he emphasises. “It’s one of these true success stories. It’s employer-driven — it has been designed, developed and implemented by industry. It’s a novel, innovative, successful approach.”

There are no figures yet available to gauge how many engineers have been redeployed through TRS. “Can we tell you the exact number? No, we can’t,” Cook acknowledges. “As the system gets more mature, then we will be able to do that because we will have built up a database that will tell us how many have actually been deployed in those areas.”

It is suggested to Cook that because technology develops today at lightning speed, the skills of engineers who are made redundant may be less valuable to businesses that seek to recruit for the ‘next generation’ engineering project. He vigorously rejects that notion. In industries such as aerospace and defence, he says, “there’s a long gestation period. The product cycles are long and extended. To develop a new aircraft, military or commercial, you’re talking about a five to 10-year cycle. To develop a new engine, you’re talking about a five, six or seven-year cycle”.

“So,” he continues, “the skills that are needed… are actually systems engineering, software development and also, basically, technician expertise. So those skill sets are still required. Technology moves on, absolutely. But the basics are very similar.”

Cook believes that up to “25 to 30%” of the talent to eventually be registered on TRS will be made up of MoD and services personnel who will lose their jobs some time in 2013. Already, however, TRS member companies, such as BAE Systems and Rolls Royce, have made arrangements to, respectively, work through TRS to match workers who stand to lose their jobs at one firm with available vacancies at the other.

This is what the programme is all about. “I know just how painful it is — one, to recruit the right calibre of talent that you need to survive and grow your business, and secondly… it is extremely painful to see people that you’ve nurtured, grown and developed being put at risk,” Cook says.

Key performance indicators aside, Cook says that the ultimate measurement of TRS’s success will be “client satisfaction”, when client companies can say that without the system, they would not be as successful as they are. “That’s the key to success,” he says.


Hard work, long hours, great opportunities and great people. You only get out of this what you’re prepared to put into it, and if you’re prepared to put into it everything that you’ve got and more, I think you get the benefit


Currently: Chairman of the Skills and Retention Group, the UK Trade & Investment’s Advanced Engineering Sector Advisory Board, Sector Skills Council for SEMTA

Also: Chairman of WS Atkins and SELEX Galileo, deputy chairman of Marshall of Cambridge (Holdings), a member of the operating executive board of JF Lehman & Co

Previously: CEO, Cobham; senior roles at GEC-Marconi, BAE Systems, Hughes Aircraft

2008 Awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list


Talent Retention Solution sponsors are: BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Nissan, Siemens, EDF, Airbus

UK Commission for Employment and Skills investment: £450,000

Employer in-kind investment: £431,200

Registration is free to companies with less than 500 employees.

Secretary of State for BIS, Vince Cable, says: “The TRS provides a way for advanced manufacturing and engineering companies to recruit engineers quickly.”

Original article can be seen here on the Recruiter Website



TRS is currently at various stages of working with over 40 universities; others are expected to participate and promote TRS throughout 2013.

TRS has a growing network of employers who will progressively be using TRS to advertise their graduate and internship vacancies to view and apply for.


TRS is a new industry approach to working with UK Further Education Colleges and employers to support and promote the recruitment and retention of skilled people into UK advanced manufacturing and engineering (AME) jobs.
See current vacancies