Network Rail apprentices at work

Apprenticeships: raising the bar

Apprenticeships have not only kicked off their image as the poor relation to a degree qualification but are further raising the bar to offer an equivalent to graduate and postgraduate level courses.

Government changes to the Specification of Apprentices Standards for England (SASE) mean that from next year, Level 6 and 7 apprenticeships, equivalent to bachelors and master’s degree level, will be available for the first time in advanced engineering.

Higher apprenticeships that can lead to degrees and postgraduate qualifications already exist, but this latest initiative will well and truly put the vocational training qualification on the map for those looking for an alternative to the traditional route to a degree, especially in the light of more expensive tuition fees.

As part of their Apprenticeship Ambition, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing, have announced an agreement to double the number of advanced and higher level apprenticeships for the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector by 2015-16.

Addressing engineering’s skills gap

Apprenticeships are seen as a key weapon in addressing the skills gap in the sector. Last year, around a third (31 per cent) of high-tech manufacturing firms said they had to recruit workers from overseas due to the lack of available skills in the UK.

“The [higher level] frameworks not only upskill the existing workforce but also develop new recruits,” says Semta ceo, Sarah Sillars. “And because they are designed with employers, they will encourage more companies to recruit apprentices.”

John Beattie, technician training advisor for the IET welcomes a dual route to higher learning that is both academic and work-based.

"Any programme that delivers formal qualifications through a combination of knowledge and experiential learning has the potential to produce sector-specific, competent, technical and engineering specialists,” he says. “The apprenticeships provide learners with alternative routes to higher education qualifications and employers with the tools to develop their technical workforce resource – the members of which are likely to remain with the employer for longer.”

The Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme

In addition to the higher apprenticeships, Semta has developed the Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme (ASAS), a flexible master’s level training programme. This allows engineers to undertake a master’s level study module that will enable them to acquire skills in specific, key technologies that have been identified as critical for driving growth and productivity.

Semta estimates that engineers from 2,000 companies in England will be taking 5,000 master’s degree modules over the next two years. The skills council has also announced that, having worked together with the industry, the aerospace engineering sector will benefit from the introduction of 500 new master’s bursaries.

The evolution of the engineering apprenticeship

Meanwhile, the Level 4 apprenticeship, which takes individuals from advanced technician through to engineer, continues to evolve.

“The Level 4 framework is very important as we develop a suite of solutions to suit all employers across all levels,” says Semta apprenticeship director, Bill Twigg.

“It is also key to note that different pathways within these frameworks are being developed all the time and these are entirely driven by employer demand. For example, a pathway for the space industry is currently in development.”

Apprenticeship starts in engineering and advanced manufacturing have increased by more than 85 per cent in the past two years and Twigg says that Semta is already 23 per cent ahead of target on its commitment to an increase in 8,000 to 16,000 starts in Level 3 and 4 in the period up to 2016.

There is still work to be done though, and through the UK Commission for Employment and Skills Employer Investment Fund, Semta is targeting employers which have not recruited an apprentice in the last 12 months. Despite the hugely encouraging figures, only 18 per cent of employers in the sector offer apprenticeships. The number of 16-24 year-olds make up just seven per cent of the advanced manufacturing and engineering workforce compared to 11 per cent for all sectors. Semta reports that women are also under-represented at 20 per cent compared to 49 per cent for all sectors.

Semta is currently developing the Level 7 framework, equivalent to a master's degree, and employers have been heavily involved to ensure it meets industry needs. It will be available next year.

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