Grow your own graduate: the apprentice route to work

Applications to apprentice schemes have soared, and there's a new sort of CV on the desk of the recruiters: the sort that has a university degree on it. 

It's a trend that will see young engineers equip themselves better for the workplace, and employers end up with the sort of skills they're looking for. But is it sustainable without more firms offering apprenticeships in the first place?

The stats have been astounding. BT's apprentice scheme hit the headlines when it reportedly received 24,000 applications for 221 places (the company has said it is considering expanding it.)

Cable & Wireless Worldwide received 1,500 applications for just 30 positions and to illustrate the rate of growth, Antony Bacon, apprenticeship programme manager, says when it launched the scheme in 2008 it attracted a far more modest 153 applications for nine positions.

With high unemployment and the number of applicants far outstripping the number of jobs available across many sectors, these figures perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise.

Another clear trend is emerging, though, which is that employers are seeing higher qualified individuals applying for apprenticeships.

Degree level

"In our second year a number of apprentices had degree-level qualifications but still saw real merit in applying for apprenticeship positions in our business," says Antony Bacon. "This year we've noticed the calibre of applicants seems higher than ever before."

Kate Snowden, head of media campaigns for Network Rail, similarly reports that many of the 4,150 candidates who applied for its advanced apprenticeship scheme this year were academically capable of going to university but had decided to take the apprenticeship approach. "Apprenticeships in the past have been seen as a poor relation but this isn't the case at all," she says.

Ready for work?

Hard evidence of this change of image in recent years can be found in the results of a survey carried out for Semta, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, which revealed that 17 per cent of employers felt graduates were poorly prepared for work, mainly in terms of practical skills. It highlighted process excellence and project management as particular skills gaps among engineering graduates and Semta says, as an alternative, some employers are now focusing on recruiting technicians through the Higher Apprenticeship in Engineering.

Parallels can be drawn with other sectors, such as IT. The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) says that while graduates are the traditional choice of entrants for IT employers, they will not provide the number required to ensure the sector has the skilled workforce it needs.

Grow your own

"Recruiting an apprentice is now being seen as a way of 'growing your own graduate'," says Josie Perry, marketing and communications director at NAS. "Providing a long term and more cost-effective approach, that gives companies the opportunity to develop and mould their employees in a way that suits their needs, right from the start."

Semta reports year-on-year increases in those taking up apprenticeships, with 16,500 people currently on engineering and advanced engineering apprenticeships in England. Philip Whiteman, Semta's chief executive, believes apprenticeships are central to the industry's future. “The need for apprenticeships is being driven by skills gaps and shortages, demographics – the retirement of older workers – and the development of advanced technologies," he says. "In the UK we have a net requirement for around 30,000 recruits a year into science, engineering and manufacturing, a third of which need higher level skills likely to be developed through apprenticeships. Yet only 11 per cent of companies are offering apprenticeships."

Semta wants to make it easier for companies to hire more apprentices. It has put a number of initiatives in place to do so and has also developed a Higher Apprenticeship in Engineering Technology in England and Wales. Whiteman explains that the latter is to increase the number of high-level engineering technicians and incorporated engineers by 1,000 per year for the engineering, manufacturing and technology sector.

Those on higher or advanced schemes report plenty of challenge and variety. Network Rail's three-year advanced programme trains recruits to be skilled maintenance engineering technicians (see case study, right). Individuals choose which area of engineering they want to focus on such as track, signal design, electrification and telecoms and spend the first year training alongside the Royal Navy at Europe's largest engineering facility at HMS Sultan in Hampshire.

Leadership

As well as learning technical skills, apprentices undertake leadership courses. The following two years training takes place on the job at depots across the country. The company took on 201 apprentices this year and has recruited 1,000 since the scheme's launch in 2005. It plans to train a further 1,200 over the next five years.

Places are likely to be hotly contested once again next year and Snowden explains that the organisation’s website is geared to helping individuals self-select and decide if it is for them. "They are also able to talk to our resourcing team through the site to find out more," she says. "Our advice is to research, research, research, not just about us but the wider industry."

The NAS says candidates need to make themselves stand out and similarly emphasises the importance of researching the job role and the organisation. "Show your knowledge and passion for the industry," says Perry. "And demonstrate enthusiasm, eagerness and commitment as you would when applying for any other job."

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