Guy Pedley, working at Sheffield Forgemasters International.

Apprentices aim high

Apprenticeships are quickly casting off their image of being the poor relation to a university education as more young people take this route into engineering and go on to obtain further qualifications such as a degree while still earning.

Guy Pedley joined Sheffield Forgemasters International as an advanced apprentice after GCSEs and is training to be a methods engineer. As well as learning on the job, he has also acquired his skills and knowledge by doing a BTEC in metallurgy through distance learning.

“The company set aside time each week for me to do the coursework, which I did in the computer room,” says Guy, whose apprenticeship includes plenty of hands-on experience as well, including working as a moulder in the factory which manufactures large steel castings for the power generation, defence and civil nuclear industries.

“I liked the fact it was a manual job,” he says. “You’re always up and about, thinking about what’s next, always planning ahead.”

Qualification opportunities

Guy is now doing a higher apprenticeship, which includes a Level 4 NVQ, an HNC and a foundation degree (he studies part-time at Staffordshire University) and has already been offered the chance to do a master’s. 

He is one of an increasing number of young people who are taking the apprenticeship route into engineering and going on to obtain further qualifications such as a degree while still earning. And with the rise in university fees and many graduates finding difficulty securing their first position, it is a trend that looks set to continue.

Apprenticeships are quickly casting off their image of being the poor relation to a degree. With concern from businesses that high unemployment and an increasing skills gap could be detrimental to the UK economy, the apprenticeship scheme is seen by both employers and government as a way to ensure we have a well-trained and highly skilled workforce able to compete on the world stage.

New apprenticeship opportunities

Government funding is set to support thousands of new higher apprenticeships that will last for between three and five years. The first round of bids for funding last summer resulted in the development of 19,000 new places from 250 employers.

“An advanced economy needs advanced skills so we want to improve progression routes through apprenticeships into higher level skills,” says Dave Way, chief executive officer of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS).

There are three levels of apprenticeship with intermediate (Level 2), advanced (Level 3) and higher (Level 4 and above), which take between one and four years to complete (depending on the level). Wage levels have historically not had a good press and the minimum wage for apprenticeships is only £2.60 an hour (rising to £2.65 in October this year) but according to NAS, research shows that the average wage per week for an apprentice is around £200.

Financial gains of apprenticeships

It is also keen to point out the longer term financial gains of being an apprentice, claiming that the lifetime benefit of achieving a Level 2 apprenticeship amounts to extra earnings between £48,000 and £74,000 and for a Level 3, between £77,000 and £117,000.

The engineering and technology sector has enjoyed a long tradition of apprenticeships and continues to do so. Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, has led the development of the higher apprenticeship framework issued in April, which can incorporate a HNC, HND or an honours degree. In 2010-11, nearly 49,000 people started an engineering apprenticeship - 11,000 more than the previous year - and more than a third of these were at the advanced and higher level.

Rolls-Royce introduced higher apprenticeships to its apprenticeship programme in 2006 and Graham Schuhmacher, head of development services at the firm, says the programme ensures a crucial supply of higher technician level skills into the company; “while participants have the opportunity to gain degree level qualifications and are being paid to learn alongside some of the best engineers in the world,” he says.

Competitions for apprentices – World Skills

While apprenticeships do mean hard work and the need to study alongside a demanding day job, there is also fun to be had with the opportunity to take part in competitions such as World SkillsUK, managed by the NAS in partnership with organisations from industry and education. It allows apprentices to show off their talents and is designed to raise participation, esteem and standards in apprenticeships and vocational training.

Those who excel in this national event are invited to compete for a place in the team that represents the UK at WorldSkills, the biennial international skills competition. Engineering categories in WorldSkillsUK range from aeronautical and automotive to mobile robotics and welding.

Apprentice Ambition

Semta has little doubt that apprenticeships will help the industry recruit and train the 82,000 engineers, scientists and technicians that its research says the UK needs by 2016, pointing out that 363,000 of the current technical workforce is qualified below world class standards.

It knows there are still challenges ahead though and last year launched the Apprentice Ambition initiative in partnership with the NAS and leading employers such as Siemens, Tata, Ford and Airbus. Its aim is to increase advanced and higher level registrations from 8,000 to 16,000 through a ten-point plan which includes attracting more quality applicants, reducing bureaucracy, developing frameworks that meet employers’ needs and improving training provision.

“Before we launched the Apprenticeship Ambition, the combination of apprenticeship starts and achievement rates was producing less than half what was needed and was doing nothing to address the skills gaps within the existing workforce,” says Bill Twigg, Semta’s apprenticeship director. “We are determined to achieve our ambition because we know that UK manufacturing and engineering needs the right technical skills to compete globally.”

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