7 January 2021
by Shardell Joseph

Materials science meets degree apprenticeships

Merging academic and industry learning, the new Materials Science Technologist degree apprenticeship takes on its first cohort of students this year. Materials World finds out more about an alternative avenue into materials science.

© Sheffield Hallam University

With large-scale demand from employers, a new Materials Science Technologist degree apprenticeship is said to be the first of its kind in the UK. Approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA) and Technical Education and coordinated by the Applied Materials Research, Innovation and Commercialisation Company (AMRICC) in Stoke-on-Trent, UK, the programme is launching at Sheffield Hallam University this year.

It will incorporate a broad range of materials content, including metals, ceramics and advanced ceramics, glass, polymers, rubbers and composites, as well as new and novel materials. The aim is to give prospective apprentices the opportunity to be at the forefront of developing new materials innovations that can drive businesses forward.

The degree apprenticeship is suitable for people with relevant qualifications who are new to material engineering, or existing employees who want to learn new skills and gain advanced qualifications. Supported by Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Derby, Staffordshire University, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Birmingham, the degree apprenticeship was developed by an employer group – the trailblazer group – led by AMRICC.

More than 40 employers were members, including energy company Cape, Steelite International, Johnson Tiles and Wade Ceramics, working together to design the qualification and introduce the scheme.

“We found this gap in the market,” says Jeffrey Fox, Director of Partnerships at AMRICC, who co-created the apprenticeship with Chief Executive Cathryn Hickey. “Cathryn and I took on board what the employers were saying, and we wrote the profile of the occupation – what you see online on the IFA’s website – that’s called the occupational standard.”

But it wasn’t a straightforward journey. Hickey explains, “To develop a new apprenticeship you have to have a group of employers who are driving and supporting the proposal. We put a call out to employers who were interested to attend a first meeting to discuss the proposal back in 2017. At that meeting there were more than 10 companies supporting the proposal, so we were able to move forward. The employers have been at the heart of the development, giving feedback on their needs for the knowledge, skills and behaviours content of the degree apprenticeship as well as the materials content. We have held a number of employer meetings to discuss this during the development programme.

“The IFA had some concerns about our initial submission, focusing as it did on a variety of materials, rather than one. After consultation with the employers, we strengthened our case for multi-materials and resubmitted. The IFA subsequently approved our second submission and this is the specification that’s on offer now.”

Sarah Walker, Relationship Manager at the IFA who mentored the group, adds, “While developing the apprenticeship, the trailblazer group went out to consultation where 29 employees, with a combined number of over 40,000 employers, suggested a need for a degree apprenticeship in the sector. They proposed that the apprenticeship would see around 1,000 starts per year.

“An apprenticeship is first and foremost a job, rather than a programme of academic study. Students will spend 80% of their time learning on-the-job training, learning first-hand from experienced colleagues. The other 20% of their time will be spent doing off-the-job training. This is where students will do any classroom-based learning, including studying for the degree.

“[This will allow] the student to get the on-the-job experience to help them understand the working world better, as well as gaining a high-level qualification that will stand them in good stead for future development.”

Fox believes “this could be a vehicle for tomorrow’s material scientists…[The degree] can cater to their regional employers. [The University of] Derby have done this brilliant thing whereby they’re not waiting for employers to contact them and say, ‘We want to have materials’ apprentices’. Derby are going out and seeking candidates and seeking employers saying, ‘You can upskill your own staff, and you don’t have to wait for a person to come in.’”

Hickey echoes this view. “This apprenticeship will provide students with the skills, knowledge and competency to deliver tangible benefits to individual companies and play a part in supporting the UK economy overall with significant advances in productivity, performance, innovation and reducing environmental impact.

“We can look forward to these apprentices increasing the competitiveness and technical competence of UK Plc here and in international markets.”

Employer perspective

David Williams, R&D Manager at NGF Europe, will be supporting future apprentice Nic Griffiths, who is starting in September 2021 at Sheffield Hallam University, UK.

He says, “Nic will have the ability to focus in on specific areas. We’re quite a niche manufacturing company, so looking at the application of glass and how glass works, how robots work – all of that will be in there. This will be useful information that will come from [the course].

“It’s just a great path, in my opinion, for people to learn. As a day-release qualified person myself, I really appreciate and understand the benefit that there is to learn academically and learning on the job at the same time.

“There’s no direct cost to the company because the apprenticeship is funded from the Apprenticeship Levy. I think that’s going to be very attractive to a lot of companies, particularly as these opportunities to train people have very little direct costs. And yet, to be able to get somebody degree qualified in four years – it’s brilliant. When I did it, it took seven years to go down this route, so it’s fabulous that it’s able to be compressed and still be considered a worthwhile degree.”

Materials World looks forward to catching up with the first cohort as the course progresses.

University perspective

Sheffield Hallam University has trained more than 1,000 individuals who have completed degree apprenticeships since 2015, and will now be offering the Materials Science Technologist Degree to prospective apprentices. Andy Rawsthorne, Apprenticeship Lead for the Engineering department, Iasmi Sterianou, Course Leader for Materials Engineering, and Roland Spencer, Business Development Manager, tell us more.

How did you go about introducing the degree apprenticeship at Sheffield Hallam?

Sterianou: “We have full-time material courses in Hallam. But we designed this course, specifically for the apprenticeship. Apart from the engineering knowledge and skills, the apprenticeship requires a lot of extra things. It’s designed for people who actually work in a materials-related environment.

“Looking at some other degree apprenticeships, a lot of them are very specific. But this particular standard is quite broad – it can be anything from metals, to ceramics, to testing, to quality control, to polymers, to plastics – anything. So, you are not training a polymer scientist, you’re training a materials engineer.

“In engineering degree apprenticeships at level six, there was something missing in terms of materials. If you look at the companies who took part [in the] trailblazer group, they are from a range of sectors. It could be automotive, it could be aerospace, quality control, it could be the chemical or the pharmaceutical sector. That range is reflected in the study itself.”

How does it work?

Rawsthorne: “A company and a learner will come forward. So typically, every learner will have an Academic Advisor who will be able to help with any academic-related inquiries, concerns or issues that they might have. And then they also have a Workplace Learning Coach – this is someone who visits them in the workplace and works with them and their industry mentor, looking at their development a bit more holistically.

“The Coach works with learners to identify opportunities. For instance, the standard requires experience of project management, but if the learner currently doesn’t do that in his/her role, the Workplace Learning Coach would work with the company to identify opportunities for the learner to get that experience.”

What are the desired outcomes?

Spencer: “We’re not just producing really good materials science technologists – we are producing, to some degree, entrepreneurs and businesspeople who understand materials science really well and can translate that into what it means within the organisation. [This can] increase the value of the organisation and increase the worth of what they do within it, thereby making that organisation more effective and profitable within the market space they happen to be.”

To find out how to apply for the degree apprenticeship at the Sheffield Hallam University, visit the Shaffield Hallam Degree apprenticeship page.


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Shardell Joseph

News Writer