Female pupils meet at Airbus' new Industrial Cadets programme.

University or apprenticeship?

Whether considering university or an apprenticeship, work-related experiences are valuable in confirming choices, says Dr Gordon Mizner, chief executive of EDT.

In these days of high student debt many students are asking whether the graduate route is the best, or indeed only, way into their chosen careers. Many are actively considering alternative routes. This is as much the case for engineering and technology as for other subjects.

Vocational routes and apprenticeships in particular have long been recognised as attractive pathways into engineering and technology, although in recent years they have suffered a low priority, due to a singular focus on getting as many young people to university as possible and hence insufficient funding.

Indeed, many industry leaders started their careers as apprentices, perhaps then progressing through part-time or full-time degrees. The practice has remained common in many other developed countries and it is welcome to see a revived focus and interest on apprenticeships for engineering and technology based roles in the UK, thereby offering students choices to better fit their preferences and capabilities.

Work-related experiences

Whichever route is preferred, employers are agreed that quality work related experiences are of great benefit in confirming the young person’s choice of subject, career, and pathway, as well as providing excellent personal development skills required for employment.

In some quarters, the term “work experience” has gained a poor reputation. However, there are many companies and organisations offering excellent experiences that provide the right level of engagement with industry, as well as allowing direct hand-on activities/roles that develop knowledge and skills.

What’s more there are opportunities at most age group levels. This is something that we at EDT are aiming to tackle by giving students an early insight into engineering and technology careers.

Whether taking a degree or pursuing an apprenticeship, the commitments involved are substantial, therefore it highly recommended that before undertaking an engineering or technology pathway a student undertakes good quality work experience to explore their chosen subject in a real working environment.

This can be through an internship or a paid work placement. At EDT we run the well-known The Year in Industry which, when used by gap year students, allows them to take a good hard look at their subject choice. Survey results show that such students see the working gap year experience as very beneficial in their degree or further studies, and particularly in deciding the specialisms they wish to follow. Overall it allows students to be much more informed in their perspectives on their future careers and therefore in the studies they must undertake.

The apprenticeship alternative

Apprenticeships are an alternative way of making the step into a real engineering or technology environment in a controlled manner, giving the opportunity to see how a discipline is applied within an industry and then being able to choose the further studies that are appropriate. EDT is finding that an increasing number of sixth form students are now looking at apprenticeships as seriously as they look at degree courses.

Companies such as multinational technology company Selex – ES use sixth form extra-curricular activities such as the Engineering Education Scheme as part of their recruitment process for apprentices. Rolls-Royce also works with the Engineering Education Scheme to promote its Manufacturing Development Programme, which pays for students to gain a MEng degree at Warwick University whilst working (and earning) for the company.

The evidence is that large employers increasingly employ people in first jobs who have already undertaken significant work related experience with the company. From the company’s point of view this reduces the risks of recruiting someone who is a poor fit for the company. The recruit will be familiar with the company culture and procedures, and the company has had the opportunity to look at the recruit’s soft skills such as teamwork and time management. Apprenticeships therefore provide another alternative for a company to assess potential long-term recruits whilst providing them with essential practical employability skills.

In practice the apprenticeship route does not imply that the student will not study for a degree. Technician apprenticeships will typically see students studying for a BSc degree while apprenticeships through the newly established University Technical Colleges will give the students the option of moving through to a degree course.

The Higher Apprenticeship programme is also designed to incorporate degree level studies. Clearly a degree is useful to have on you CV, particularly if you aspire to going far in the engineering profession, but the choice of an apprenticeship does not preclude the achievement of a degree as part of the process.

Thinking about applying for an apprenticeship?

Good information on applying for an apprenticeship can be obtained by taking part in extra-curricular activities organised by schools with local industry. High quality work experience is hard for schools to organise and so they and local employers have to find new ways of linking so that students can gain an insight into what happens in local industry and how the subjects they study at school can make them useful future recruits in local industry.

Industrial cadets

Students with an interest in working in industry would be well advised to take part in a scheme like Industrial Cadets which will enable them to gain an understanding of a local industry, understand how their school work translates into practical projects in the world of commerce, and most importantly to be mentored by individuals already working in industry who can give them advice and inspiration for their future careers.

Engineering Education Scheme

At sixth form level more specialist and intensive projects can be experienced through the Engineering Education Scheme mentioned above. This will involve a small team working on a real project with mentoring by the company involved. The difference with a sixth form scheme like this is that good performance will be noted by the company and a successful project will be very positive for the CV of the students involved.

All these ways of engaging with local industry are beneficial to a student considering an industrial career. The soft skills developed in team projects are highly prized by industry will stand a student in good stead whatever their chosen career path but most importantly contact with mentors from the company will enable a student to get a good view of the apprenticeships they may offer, indeed a number of companies use apprentices as mentors on such programmes.

Find out which route is best for you

Whether considering university or an apprenticeship, work-related experiences are valuable in confirming choices. Taking part in other extra-curricular activities can also help inform and change perceptions about engineering and technology careers and the pathways available.

Extra-curricular industry-linking projects, such as Industrial Cadets, Go4SET and the Engineering Educations Scheme, not only provide students with skills that are highly valued by future employers, but also give access to excellent information about what working in industry is like and the best available routes to pursuing such a career.

Indeed we are beginning to see the trend where some employers use the Engineering Education Scheme as a major plank in their recruitment onto apprenticeship programmes.

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