20 April 2012
WM's Shop Talk gets under the skin of the men and women on the frontline of UK factories.
Kirk White, 30, engineering team leader at Gripple in Sheffield, recalls life-changing adventures and apprenticeship ambitions.
When the careers advisor told me I couldn't be a stuntman, engineering was definitely the next best thing. I was always taking my bike to bits and I bought my first car at 15. It cost me £300 – all my savings. Every dinnertime, I'd come home from school and drive it up and down the drive. First gear, reverse, first gear. That was all I could do legally; there wasn't even room to turn it round. I loved that car. I put in a new sound system and go-faster stripes. Then I lent it to my brother-in-law. One day he asked me if he could buy it, then confessed he'd written it off. I was that upset but at least I made £50 profit from the deal.
I went to Gripple part-time as a machine operator for a bit of cash while I waited to start my apprenticeship with another company. Then John Joyce, our engineering director, said why not do it here instead? That was 14 years ago and I've pretty much grown up with the company. I've gone through the pink-haired lad out every night stage to a team leader with real responsibility, a new house, a wife and a baby on the way. I look up to the people who started on the machines and worked their way up. It gives you the ambition and drive to do the same.
I've done things here that would never have come my way if I'd just gone off to university. Gripple supports Raleigh International which gets youngsters working in community projects in some of the poorest places on earth. After raising the money to fund the trip though things like car washing, I spent nearly three months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We dug water channels to stop a school flooding; built community centres; taught English – it opened my eyes to a different world. Now I'm organising other youngsters in Gripple to try for it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When I came back, I moved into sales. It was good money but I missed the team and being hands-on. After Raleigh, I knew I'd rather earn less and be happy. So I went to our new operation in Chicago to set up production. I went initially as an engineer but I was offered the team leader job there. It was the hardest work ever. I had to juggle engineering, production, packing – I was on call 24 hours a day. At first, being a Brit upset a few people but we became a real team. It took about five attempts to make them understand me, though. People said I couldn't be English because I didn't sound like Hugh Grant. I'm from Sheffield! We don't talk with plums in us mouths!
I could have stayed in the US but I missed my partner Sarah. We were engaged, planning a family and she wanted her parents to be part of that. But that's the thing about engineering – we can always go back if the time is right.
We had a school reunion a while back. It was supposed to be the worst school in Sheffield but looking around, I knew I'd done pretty well. What's more, so had all my friends who'd gone into engineering. Today I wouldn't change a thing – my job, my team, my future. But I hope our baby arrives on time so I can still get to Silverstone for the F1 Grand Prix.
Best advice you ever received? Don't be afraid of trying new things. Making a mistake is better than doing nothing at all.
Biggest mistake? Trying to give myself a haircut. The clippers slipped and I spent my first Gripple Christmas party with a great chunk missing and my scalp coloured in with mascara.
Life-changing experience: Raleigh International. It taught me what's really important – and it's not money.
Your hero? My dad – the best work ethic ever, 13 hours a day, six days a week as a butcher to provide for his family.
Your tip to youngsters? With an apprenticeship behind you, there's no limit to what you can do. Oh yes – and the secret of a brilliant, well-risen Yorkshire pudding is a red-hot oven.
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