Major Equipment in Co Mayo employs 100 people - and they need more
Its name is synonymous with high quality grass mowers and slurry handling equipment but one of the challenges facing Major Equipment International Ltd is attracting graduates and skilled people to drive its expansion.
To off-set these challenges, the company has developed its own apprenticeship training programme that offers school-leavers an alternative to going down the route of university or college for their education.
The Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo-based company designs and manufactures machinery and industrial equipment, and has built up a strong name for its products' reliability and robustness.
Major Equipment employs around 100 people between its Mayo headquarters and UK office but supports even more jobs in related companies to which some of its work is outsourced and everything is done in Ireland.
Its European sales manager is based in The Netherlands.
Major exports to over 20 countries already and in an ever evolving and changing world, where efficiency is key to meeting production demands to feed an increasing population, research and development is at the core of its operation.
Conquering new markets is also high on the agenda of the motivated team of what is essentially a family business.
Set up in 1976 by brothers, John and Mark Murphy, Major started out manufacturing transport boxes and grass cutting equipment.
Ireland's accession to the EEC changed the whole outlook of agriculture and storage and the spreading of slurry became an issue.
Anticipating the needs of farmers, the Murphys began to develop equipment and machinery around the new European directives.
"The philosophy around the products always has been that products we produce are strong and durable," explained Eibhlin Murphy, Marketing Manager at Major Equipment Intl Ltd, and the second generation of the family to get involved in the business.
"Farmers don't want to be coming back replacing machinery so durability and reliability have always been to the fore.
"If it survives around Mayo, where we're based, it will travel.
"Our biggest markets are probably the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and our product range is quite mixed and includes slurry handling equipment, grass cutting equipment for agricultural application but we also do grass cutting equipment for professional users, the likes of local authorities, parks, sports pitches and race courses."
Three local authorities in the Melbourne area in Victoria, Australia are using equipment that was developed and manufactured in Ballyhaunis.
Mark Murphy left the company 10 years ago to set up AgriSpread International with his family, also in Ballyhaunis, which specialises in equipment for fertiliser and lime spreading.
John Murphy is now joined by daughters, Eibhlin, who looks after marketing, and Áine, the financial controller, and son, Eoin, an engineering graduate, who's based in the UK office.
General Manager, Michael Keane, provides a valuable outside perspective.
Attracting graduates and training apprentices is something that's always to the fore in a competitive market and the reason why Major Equipment developed its own apprenticeship programme in conjunction with SOLAS, the State's further education and training authority.
"There are just so many opportunities and we would be growing faster if we could get people, that is our biggest problem," Ms Murphy added.
"We're always on the lookout for graduates, design engineers, particularly those coming in from the University of Limerick, and the Institute of Technology Tralee.
"The quality of the graduates in those two institutions has been very good and we take people on for their work experience placements from those."
However, within the last two years, Major Equipment devised its own four-year apprenticeship programme, a mixture between hands-on work experience at the Ballyhaunis factory, combined with work placement at other facilities.
The theory element is provided by SOLAS trainers.
The apprenticeships are offered in the areas of Mechanical Automation, Sheet Metal Work and Metal Fabrication.
"There is a lack of skills and trying to get qualified welders is very difficult. Our average welder is 58," she added.
In the first year, Major took on two apprentices. The following year they increased this number to six and it hopes to take on the same number this year.
"These were really, really good people and we're just thrilled with them and we're going to take on another six this September, so that we have a constant flow of people coming in.
"Hopefully, this will alleviate the pressure at the moment trying to hire people with these very valuable skills."
Although the emphasis of the past few years was on going to college and getting a degree, Ms Murphy feels the focus is returning once more to apprenticeships as an alternative route to qualification and ultimately a career.
"The thing about an apprenticeship is you still get your papers and qualification but you've also got the hands-on experience, and you're earning at the same time," she says.
"Afterwards, you can literally travel the world and pick your job. We've oceans of work and we're constantly crying out for people.
"We've two sides of the house, the tanker equipment and the grass cutting and it's the former where we need the really experienced fitters and fabricators.
"You can also progress fairly quickly within the company and move between various areas of the business.
"It's still a small, family company but if people want to go on and do further training, we support that as well," she said.
Added to that is the more relaxed pace of life and the cheaper cost of living of being in the west of Ireland.
Ballyhaunis is right on the border with Galway, Sligo and Roscommon and the motorway to Dublin is only 40 minutes away.
Ms Murphy's big project at the moment is to crack the United States and get into that market.
"We've been working at that for the last 18 months or so. It's a long haul but we have a machine on trial at the moment with a very large company and they have a buying process so we have to just be patient.
"We're trying to fine-tune the product and get it completely right for their market. The grass is different in other countries and we're just trying to get that right.
Apart from that, Major Equipment Intl Ltd is constantly trying to add new markets. The home market is still the most important but to allow it develop new products it has to have its eyes on the export market to keep growing and remain profitable to reinvest in R&D.
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