Q&A – Peter Winebloom

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2018

Kathryn Allen talks to Peter Winebloom, Technical Training Director at EEF – The Manufacturers’ Organisation, UK, about his career to date, technical training and the apprenticeship levy.

Tell me about your background and career.   

My career started, having left school at 16, with an engineering apprenticeship with GKN Hardy Spicer – a UK manufacturer of constant velocity joints for the automotive sector. At school, I did technical drawing and engineering O-Levels, so I was already showing an interest for technical subjects. The craft and technician apprenticeship lasted five years – fairly similar to those nowadays. 

GKN Hardy Spicer was a relatively large company with their own apprentice training school, where I did my first year of on-the-job training. I did day-release at local colleges. 

In my final year, the training manager of the apprenticeship school asked me if I'd consider working for him as an instructor. This came as a surprise as I was looking at going into the drawing office as a draftsman. Clearly he'd seen something in me that indicated an ability to become a trainer. 

I became the youngest instructor at the firm. With hindsight, I think I could have benefited from a proper job – perhaps I should have gone into the drawing office or production. However, in this role I quickly realised what I didn't know. I learnt that the adage 'if you can’t do, teach' doesn't work – you've really got to know your subject to teach it. After various positions at the company, going from Senior Instructor to Training Officer to Training Manager, I left to explore pastures new. 

I joined ARC Aggregates – an extractive firm dealing with quarries, sand and gravel pits, concreting plants, landfill operations and road-surfacing operations – as their Regional Training Officer. As part of the Western Division, I looked after Wales and the shire counties, overseeing a range of programmes from their apprenticeships to their sponsored students, graduate programmes and staff development. I spent three years there before they restructured. I did an interim year with Simon Access and, after that, joined what was then the Marine and Engineering Training Association, which went on to become Semta. In 2004, I joined EEF as General Manager of their Birmingham Training Centre. 

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

I manage two apprentice training centres in Birmingham. We currently have 400 apprentices starting every year and around 1,000 apprentices on the programme from a number of organisations. 

What has been your biggest career highlight? 

I really enjoyed my time with Semta when we were introducing national vocational qualifications and rebranding apprenticeships as it gave me the opportunity to engage with a wide range of employers across the whole sector. In my current role, it's been the evolving development of our capability at EEF. I started in a fairly dated training centre, which had a capacity of around 60. We now have two state-of-the-art buildings with training rooms for academic study and floor space for the practical delivery. 

Getting the approval of EEF's board to improve this facility was a highlight. It allowed us to respond to employers’ needs. In the last three years, we've also invested in technology and equipment that the apprentices can learn on, so we can push the parameters for high-end technical skills. We've also extended our provision to include the academic delivery at degree level through partnerships with universities. 

Which employers do students at the EEF Technical Training Centre work for? 

We have a lot of first tier companies – Jaguar-Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Ibstock Brick and Severn Trent Water, to name a few. But we provide a service to all types of employers, even down to microbusinesses and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). What we specialise in is engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships and the various pathways within those, such as maintenance, mechatronics, technical support engineers, quality engineers, machinists and welders. It is great to see the apprentices from a variety of companies working together and supporting each other in their learning – a real benefit for apprentices from SMEs. 

How have technical training and apprenticeships changed in engineering? 

There have been a number of government rebrands. I'm a product of the 70s, which incidentally was when we had a levy system, so we've come full circle. I think engineering and manufacturing has always had a strong track record of delivering high-quality apprenticeships, and we've managed to maintain that despite of all the government changes. This high quality has been transferred into creating standards for the new apprenticeship levy. 

The age profile of your traditional apprentice has changed quite dramatically. They are not necessarily young – the default position that it is for a 16-year-old has gone. I see 16, but also 20-year olds in the training centre just beginning their first apprenticeship. There are also a lot of people who will complete A-Levels and then go on to an apprenticeship. We've even had students through here that have done a degree and then signed up to an apprenticeship.

Are apprenticeships seen as a good way of getting into the industry? 

Yes – by those that know and understand them. However, I don't think we've won the public argument that they are of equal status to A-Levels or degrees yet. I think those that understand or know someone who has undertaken an apprenticeship can see how it acts as a springboard to their career. We're making progress, particularly when we consider degree-apprenticeships, but there is a little bit of snobbery between academic and vocational training in the UK, favouring the former. 

Can this be overcome with the levy? 

I think the levy will encourage employers to be more involved in designing apprenticeships that meet their needs, as well as understanding their delivery and costs. I also think young people are understanding their options better in terms of deciding between apprenticeships or university. There are those for who university will always be the right option. I'm not saying one option is better than the other, we need people to go to university and do academic study, but for others, the vocational route will give them an equal springboard to launch their career. Many employers prefer the apprenticeship route, particularly now centres train to degree level. 

What are the benefits of apprenticeships?

There are many. It's a sure sign that the employer is prepared to invest for the future. Employers will be making a significant investment in an apprenticeship far above the money they may get through the levy system or the government pot. This investment allows employers to improve the efficiency of their own people and they end up with a more loyal staff member. Inevitably, people will move, but employers tend to get their investment back as employees stick around for longer. I did 14 years with my first employer before I moved.

What is your opinion of the apprenticeship levy?

It's early days. The UK has been through a number of initiatives – we tried a voluntary approach in the late 80s, we also tried to incentivise employers. I think the latest scheme has the potential to put employers in the driving seat. However, we need to ensure it achieves long-term gains, not just short-term wins and for that to happen we need to see a number of changes now and a commitment to evolve the levy over time.

We have spent a lot of time advising our members and clients during the last two years, keeping them up-to-date on the levy as it has been implemented. It is complicated and there is a level of bureaucracy that comes with it that needs to be understood and managed. However, if it achieves some of the underlying principles it initially set out – creating more quality apprenticeships, encouraging more employers to invest in training and creating a genuine market where employers have greater purchasing power – then employers are likely to be more supportive than they currently are. We, as employers, the government and private providers, have to be transparent in how much money is collected and spent. We've also got to support the infrastructure. Employers need a stable training provider base, whether that is colleges or private providers. If we allow that to erode, employers aren't going to be able to get the skills provision they need. 

Traditionally, engineering and manufacturing have apprenticeship durations of three or four years plus. There's a cost associated with lengthy, high-quality apprenticeships, from the teaching to equipment and technologies. In our centre, we have robotics, CNC machinery, virtual welding – to name a few pieces of equipment – so the apprentices learn on what they will be using on the job. But this requires investment. Equally, with an apprentice, while I play my part as a training provider, a lot of the learning is on-the-job with the employer. It's very much a partnership.

How can an employer make the most out of the new levy?

There are incentives in the levy, and benefits to be had, for whatever size company. They just need to understand how it works. It's important for employers to know what they need in terms of skills – are they trying to fill a skills gap or upskill existing employees? They then need to use the levy money wisely – it needs to be planned and the apprentice needs a job role to go into once they leave. The employer needs to think about career development and retention strategies.

Do you see students return who want to do a second apprenticeship?

Not so much to date, but under the levy there is a degree of flexibility to allow employees to do a second apprenticeship. For example, if they first went down a technical route and then, having moved to their first position, there could be the opportunity to undertake a management apprenticeship. That structure hasn't been there before. I think that will really help career development. Equally, you could go down a technical route and then branch off into a specialised one, another area or a more advanced level. You've got the opportunity to progress up levels as well as adding breadth. It’s crucial to use the system to best develop the person, rather than just chasing the funding