You're hired! Do we need more apprentices?

Apprenticeships could be a crucial way of getting talent into the science, engineering and technology sector. Mike Turner of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network explains why.

Located in a swanky Art Deco building in central London's smart Wigmore Street, Babcock International Group PLC exudes the great tradition of British engineering. Solid, reliable, affluent and with just the right amount of showmanship. The very fabric of the building seems to say 'you can do business with us'.

The chairman of Babcock is Mike Turner, an industry veteran, a man who talks to Prime Ministers, a man respected throughout the aerospace and defence industries. His office is not quite so ostentatious. In fact, it's a basic 'rabbit hutch' that gives few clues as to just how successful Turner has been. There's a general air of no-nonsense utilitarianism and perhaps a hint of austerity.

As he talks about the recession, Turner drops several clues as to his modest background. Although he could have gone to the London School of Economics, he did an apprenticeship with an aviation firm in Manchester while studying at his local polytechnic. He's now part of an influential group of captains of industry dedicated to bringing the role of the apprentice back into a central position on the employment stage.

Turner first got involved in apprenticeships while at school. He tells the tale of how he was in the upper sixth studying for his A-levels and destined to extend his education at the London School of Economics. One day he noticed that a school friend was writing to a company called Hawker Siddeley Aviation. His friend David told him that "they pay you to go to university - they sponsor you". In those days student grants were £5 per week, but apprentices got paid double that, and for Turner the proposition was "a no-brainer". He applied to Hawker Siddeley Aviation and was accepted, but, he suspects "only because I could play football and they wanted somebody to play on the inside left".

Turner's plan was to do a 1-3-1. Although this sounds like a football formation it denotes a five-year schedule that started with a year at Hawker Siddeley, followed by three at the London School of Economics and another back at the firm. After a few weeks he was told that there was a new polytechnic in Manchester doing a four-year degree in business studies. This was the era of the 'sandwich degree' - a system in which you did six months at a college followed by a further six in the company going around the different departments learning the trade.

After completing his degree, Turner then progressed to a professional chartered secretary qualification on a day release basis, and went on to teach economics and statistics at night school to earn extra income. He then "had about 17 jobs in ten years - for some reason they just kept promoting me and a few years ago I ended up as chief executive in BAE Systems".

It was "a great ride as an executive career", but when he turned 60 he decided it was time to switch from executive to non-executive, accepting the chairmanship at Babcock International. But, he reflects, "it all started as an apprenticeship".

Today, one of Turner's many roles in industry is as a leader of the engineering sector of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network, an independent group of senior business leaders who are committed to apprenticeships.

The Network is chaired by Sir Roy Gardner of the Compass Group PLC, and members include Babcock International, Bentley Motors, British Gas, BT and BAE Systems.

The Network aims to champion apprenticeships to employers of all sizes to increase take up, particularly in sectors of poor penetration by making the business case for them. It also provides feedback to government, the Learning and Skills Council, the newly created National Apprenticeship Service and the Sector Skills Development Agency on issues and policy that affect the quality and effectiveness of apprenticeships.


Engineering & Technology: How did the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network (AAN) come about?

Mike Turner: It was a good idea of our Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was the chancellor at the time, to get a group of business people together to promote apprenticeships.

I used to see Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and they always used to talk of getting 50 per cent of people into university, and I used to say to them: "what's the point in that? What courses are they doing? Are they being given any guidance as to what they're going to do at the end of it?" You need the 'demand pull' - you can't just keep pushing people into universities. At the end of it there's got to be a career.

We brought together a group of business people who cared about young people, who wanted to give them a background in business and not just an academic life that may lead nowhere in career terms.

Importantly, we also aimed to keep the academic component. What I don't like is people thinking that apprenticeships are all about vocation and industrial experience. It's certainly academic as well.


E&T: What is wrong with the perception of apprenticeship today?

MT: Things might be changing, for example when we realised we were short of plumbers in this country. So if you're a plumber you'll get a job, but if you want to work in the City then maybe you won't.

I remember when I was a boss at Hawker Siddeley, I was out on the shop floor and I saw a teacher from the local school showing pupils around. I said to her: "I think it's really great you showing your students what opportunities there are for skilled people in manufacturing." And she said to me: "No, no. I'm showing them how they'll end up if they don't pass their exams." And that is the worst possible view of engineering and manufacturing. I hope now that people are realising that a skill - and an apprenticeship can give you that - is more important than ever.


E&T: What does the AAN do?

MT: As a group we said "we're clearly all committed to apprenticeships in our own companies. But what can we do to get other people involved?".

What we learnt was that young people actually want apprenticeships, and that the problem was that there weren't enough companies offering them. We all had contacts in the business world, and so what we did was to bring other companies into the network and shared with them the benefits their companies could gain by opening up apprenticeships.

We also got the public sector involved, and it was quite clear to us that they weren't employing apprentices, and they are the biggest single employer in the country. The government wasn't following that line, but I think that's changing now.


E&T: You've got the plan and you're fighting for the money. So who are the people you want to take on as apprentices?

MT: The very best. We want young people at school not thinking that the only attractive career route is to go to university. We want them to become an apprentice, and maybe then go to university as part of that apprenticeship. But we want the brightest people to come into the world of engineering and technology.

I think this country is and can continue to be second to none in these areas, but we do need the government to back these industries.


E&T: How do you identify these people, and how do you select them at school age?

MT: Fortunately at BAE Systems and at Babcock we have thousands and thousands of applicants and we have to turn a lot away.

But I just wonder if we're getting the very, very best people out of the schools because I don't see teachers generally promoting apprenticeships, because it's in the schools' interest to keep the brightest pupils in full-time education. We have talked about this many, many times at our apprenticeship meetings, and hopefully we're getting this changed and getting the message into schools that an apprenticeship is as good, if not better, a career choice than going to university.


E&T: What are the key issues the AAN are addressing?

MT: Precisely that one. If we are going to succeed in this country in engineering and technology we need the very best people to come into apprenticeships. I used to go to the careers people in my school and they'd say "go to university - don't worry about apprenticeships - sort that out later". We really need to change that way of thinking.

It's more important now, because in my day you didn't worry about getting a job. It was automatic almost. You went to school, you went to college and you got a job, and it was seen as a career for life. Now it's a great deal more difficult, isn't it?


E&T: Are we preparing people in the correct manner for a career in the science, engineering and technology sector?

MT: No. Everything is levelled down. You've got to stream education so that you can bring on the brightest people. No one's allowed to fail, it's levelled down and we're reaching the lowest common denominator.

I believe in equal opportunity but not equal outcome. There's an old saying: 'If everyone can't afford to go to the Ritz, you don't close the Ritz.' And we're closing the Ritz. The money is not going to the top colleges and universities. It's going to the mediocre ones and that's wrong for this country and it will have an impact on our ability to compete.


E&T: What do you think of 'The Apprentice' TV programme?

MT: I think that it doesn't reflect in any shape, manner or form what a real apprenticeship is. We don't send young people to do the job without the skills and training they need. We prepare them and teach them the skills they need so that they can succeed - we don't look to find the weakest link to fire.

A real apprenticeship is a partnership - but I suspect it's not very attractive for a reality TV show!


E&T: Let's put it another way. If E&T gave you a huge budget to make your own TV programme about apprenticeships, what would be the themes you address?

MT: That it really is a way of spending your most useful learning period in a rewarding manner. With an apprenticeship you can launch a really good career and not just go to university only to start again.

An apprenticeship is a better way of helping a younger person to understand business - by having a vocational side as well as an academic side to their education.


More information is available on the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network [new window]

To find out how to employ an apprentice, visit the Apprenticeships [new window] website.

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