The North of England's gas distributor is bidding for a slice of a multi-million pound Goverment fund in a move to create new jobs in the region by allowing small engineering companies to gain a vital foothold in the gas industry.
Northern Gas Networks, which owns and operates the gas network across the North of England, wants to give new and existing SMEs the chance to become one of its sub-contracting partners, working on its £100m per annum gas pipe replacement work.
The partnership scheme will provide local SMEs with a guarantee of work, together with professional training, business support and a fully-funded apprentice recruit - equipping them with everything they need to enter the market.
The company is bidding for £3.2 million from the Government's Regional Growth Fund to make it a reality.
If the funding bid is successful, the scheme will be available to existing SMEs, as well as potentially helping up to 20 new businesses to set up from scratch. At least 100 direct jobs, and a further 100 indirect jobs are expected to be generated within the first few years.
Howard Forster, Northern Gas Networks Director of Programme Investment said: "We need to replace hundreds of kilometres of old, cast iron gas mains with modern plastic pipes each year, to ensure a safe, reliable gas service for our millions of customers. It's a huge undertaking, requiring around £100 million of investment annually.
"Traditionally, these contracts have gone to large, national or international firms, but through our partnering programme, we aim to widen the opportunities to small, local engineering companies, rooted in the communities where the work is being delivered. We'll provide everything these new partner companies need to get started - the training, business support, and the funding to take on employees, including apprentices.
"We have already piloted this grass roots approach with great success and now aim to roll it out far more extensively, if our bid to the Regional Growth Fund is successful."
With latest research from Energy & Utility Skills revealing that 40% of businesses working in the power industry in England suffer from some form of skills gap, Northern Gas Networks expects its programme to help participants reinvent themselves for the future.
"The modern gas industry is green-minded, technologically advanced and very innovative - so our programme will equip businesses with the tools for long-term success, both in this industry and elsewhere," Howard said.
Northern Gas Networks will work in partnership with Energy & Utility Skills, CBI North East, North East Chamber of Commerce and Northumbrian Water, plus national engineering specialists Balfour Beatty and Enterprise to deliver the programme.
Sharon McLaughlin from Energy & Utility Skills said: "Opening up gas contracts to small businesses who are traditionally overlooked by the sector is a great idea. It will help existing small businesses to expand their horizons, and enable new businesses to emerge. It stands to be a real shot in the arm for the engineering sector in our region, as well as going some way to providing potential jobs to young people in the region."
Northern Gas Networks serves a total of 2.7 million homes and businesses. The company's engineers also handle the emergency response in the region for customers who report a smell of gas by calling the national emergency gas line - 0800 111 999.