Training for the future – apprenticeships

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2008

As the new UK National Apprenticeship Service sets out its priorities, Meagan Ellis finds out more about apprenticeships for young people in UK industry, and how the Service aims to support companies in providing such training.

While training apprentices is a good way to ensure a new generation of workers, for smaller manufacturers like Davy Markham, based in Sheffield, UK, offering such opportunities is not easy.

A producer of heavy and complex ­engineering components and assemblies, Davy Markham experienced a 20-year gap of not taking on any apprentices because it did not have the required financing. But following an economic turnaround, the company was able to renew its in-house training scheme at the end of 2007, and is currently employing 17 apprentices aged 16-18, who should receive Level 3 qualifications.

For Kevin Parkin, Managing Director of Davy Markham, employing apprentices is a necessity. ‘There are specific skills our workers need to have that we need to teach them personally,’ he says. And the timing is important, as the company’s 180 workers are moving closer to retirement.

However, reintroducing the programme has not come cheap. Apprentices are paid an annual salary of £12-13,000, ‘without a penny being received from the Government’, notes Parkin. ‘Each apprentice is costing us £40,000, and we have no guarantee they will work for us at the end [of their training]. They could be stolen by another company. The Government needs to offer more support to businesses.’

Back from the brink

The future of UK industry depends on young people being trained to fill technically-exacting roles. However, until recently, limited emphasis has been placed on supporting apprenticeships.

The decline of UK manufacturing and heavy industry from the 1970s onwards saw an equal drop in the number of young people taking on apprenticeships – by 1997, only 65,000 people started such programmes. Though enrolment numbers later improved, completion levels remained low – of the 100,000 young people who began an apprenticeship in 2001/02, only a quarter finished it.

Concern for the long-term competitiveness and viability of UK industry led Lord Leitch to prepare the 2006 report, Prosperity for all in the Global Economy – World Class Skills. The report called for the number of apprentices in the UK to increase to 500,000 each year, with emphasis placed on high-quality skills training for those who are less academically inclined.

Thanks to renewed support from industry and Government, the number of new-starts rose to 180,000 in 2006/07, and successful completion rates reached 63%.

The UK Government is now debating a Draft Apprenticeships Bill that aims to increase the number of people beginning apprenticeships in England to 260,000 by 2020. It has recently created a National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), which is the UK’s first such national and regional resource.

Funding of £1bln will help support apprenticeships between 2007-08 and 2010-11. The aim of the Bill is to:
• Ensure there are enough places available for any qualified young person who is interested.
• Define the role of the NAS to provide ­leadership and support for apprenticeships and act as a go-between for employers and young people.
• Place special emphasis on expanding apprenticeships for those aged 25 and over, to provide people returning to work with a refresher course.
• Ensure training is of a uniform high quality.
• Provide direct incentive payments to SMEs.

The last goal is particularly important for the UK. A common problem for firms involved in science, engineering or manufacturing is not with finding enough people to fill roles, but rather with finding enough businesses willing to take on those people. The Lords Committee on Economic Affairs noted that many schemes in the country are over-subscribed.

The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), for example, restarted its apprenticeship scheme at its Culham facility in 2005 in an attempt to overcome future ­staff shortfalls. But each year, the organisation has only taken on four new electrical and mechanical apprentices, despite getting ‘over 100 applications’, says Anna Barns, Senior Administrator for the UKAEA apprentice scheme. ‘We may increase the number of apprentices we train,’ she says, ‘but that depends on a number of factors, including funding’.

The NAS provides free training to employers wishing to take on apprenticeships aged 16-19, and is partially paying for adult apprenticeship frameworks. But to address the greater needs of SMEs, it is looking to roll out pilot wage compensation projects in 2009. ‘We want to make sure that people maintain their skills base, even in economic uncertainty,’ says Madeleine Durie, Director of Apprentices at the Learning and Skills Council, which houses the NAS.

Another initiative being discussed is an ‘over training’ programme whereby larger employers will be encouraged to take on more apprentices than needed to train them for the wider industry. The NAS will soon launch a prospectus asking companies to submit proposals on how such a scheme might work.

‘There are some good employers who have excellent training schemes, and we want to build on that,’ notes Durie.

Shifting attitudes

One company with a strong reputation for training is Jaguar Land Rover, based in Gaydon, UK. The firm has employed over 1,000 apprentices in the past decade, and has long been lauded for the output of its Technical Academy, which was created in 1997 and is claimed to be the only training centre in the UK ‘certified to serve a global base’.

Recruiting apprentices has been high on the company’s agenda over the past year. It has announced plans to recruit 200 young people by August 2009 (it has already accepted over 100 applicants), launched two websites dedicated to its training programme, and has introduced a communication apprenticeship on how to deal with customers.

Technical Academy Manager Dr Adrian Birch says the company’s heightened emphasis on apprentices is so it can ensure future skills gaps are filled with people whose knowledge and experience can be relied on. ‘This is the only way forward,’ he says. ‘There is no other way to get people within our industry who are [able] to fix the level of technology within our cars.’

With the NAS also increasing emphasis on training people over the age of 25, Jaguar Land Rover has opened its recruitment process to older apprentices. ‘We have one person who is 60 who wants to be an apprentice, and we’re going to take him on. We won’t turn anybody away,’ says Birch.

In the past decade, he says there has been an attitude change towards apprentices. ‘In my first year [at the Academy] it was difficult to recruit because people didn’t understand apprenticeships. It had changed from the old craft apprenticeships.’ Modern training focuses on technical and non-technical positions, including sales. ‘Now we have a complete reversal, and people come to us to ask us to take people on,’ says Birch.

It is this attitude that the NAS would like to foster. ‘A lot of companies don’t realise that apprenticeships even exist, or they think they are in traditional sectors,’ says Durie. ‘In fact, there are over 180 different apprenticeship frameworks employers can take on [from IT to civil service]. And the benefits of apprenticeships to [businesses] are quite significant – 76% say it gives them greater productivity and 80% say it reduces staff turnover.

The NAS aims ‘to get the message out that apprenticeships are an important part of a [company’s] training plan,’ Durie adds.

Getting in touch with the youth

The need to reach out to students under 16 is another area that needs development, according to Birch, a belief echoed by Ian Lockhart, Apprenticeship Manager at Cogent, the UK Sector Skills Council for Chemicals, Nuclear, Oil and Gas, Petroleum and Polymers. ‘The new 14-19 diplomas will hopefully give younger people better insight into vocational education routes and what type of occupations there are in industry,’ he says. ‘So this should allow them to progress on to apprenticeships, and foundation and university degrees.’

Durie says the NAS will work with schools and colleges to advise on opportunities. It has also created what she calls a ‘dating agency’ for employers and prospective trainees. The Vacancy Matching Service will provide a searchable database for apprenticeship opportunities throughout England. Employers have already begun uploading vacancies, and Durie expects there to be around 5,000 listed when it is launched in early 2009.

In the meantime, the NAS is drawing up a blueprint of what the new apprenticeship frameworks need to contain, and is working with Sector Skills Councils to raise the quality of each training initiative, such as by offering Level 4 qualifications that can lead directly to higher education.

‘It is good to have apprenticeships back on people’s agendas,’ says Durie. ‘Because those that know about them know how worthwhile they are.’

The German precedent

Apprenticeships are highly entrenched in German culture, where almost every company has signed a pledge with industrial unions to take on apprentices. Over 350 occupational training subjects are on offer to those aged 15 and above. In 2001, two-thirds of young people under 22 began apprenticeshps, with a 78% completion rate. The number of people aged 15-19 without a profession or traineeship is low compared to other countries – only 2.3%.

The country’s dual education system, created in the 1960s, means vocational training is the shared responsibility of the Government, unions, associations and industry. The Chamber of Industry and Commerce provides an educational licence to companies seeking to take on apprentices. Instruction can only be given by a master craftsman who has been working for several years in his or her field and has been accepted by the Chamber.

Training consists of three or four days’ on-the-job learning, with one or two days in a vocational school. The company generally pays for the in-house training while the Government covers the cost of the schools.

Daniel Jagiella, a technical engineer at automotive company Bertrandt in Stuttgart, Germany, completed an apprenticeship in car body repair in 1998. The training took him three and a half years, and by his final year he was earning 950DM a month. ‘I did not really enjoy school and I wanted to learn that particular profession – there was a lot of choice in what I could do,’ he says. ‘My company paid for the training and I was able to make money right away, meaning I could become independent from my parents earlier. I was also offered a one-year contract following completion, so it was easy to get work.’

He has recently been studying part-time at a specialist technical school to achieve a Government certificate in technical business administration, and hopes to move on to managerial work within Bertrandt.

Further information: The National Apprenticeship Service