Now more than ever, older people are taking up apprenticeships, with a rise of 20 per cent in just five years. It seems that apprenticeships aren't just for teenagers, so could this unexpected trend help keep engineering buoyant?
With all the fanfare that apprenticeships have received over the last few years, it's no surprise to learn that there are now 800,000 people working as apprentices in the UK. But would you be more shocked to learn that 50,000 of them are over 50?
Recent figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) show that apprenticeship numbers have risen 73 per cent since 2009. They were promoted then to help tackle youth unemployment, but apprenticeships taken up by people over 25 has risen from 19 per cent five years ago to 42 per cent today.
Earlier this year, research by Dr Ros Altmann (the government's business champion for older people) found that nearly half of non-retired people over 50 said they were interested in training to learn new skills or update existing ones.
David Copp is someone who did just that. At the age of 59, he gave up his career as a patent attorney to pursue a course at the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) in Suffolk.
"I had been doing an office job for many years and really wanted to do things with my hands," he explained. "It took me a couple of years to pluck up the courage to take the plunge and leave my professional practice."
On an intensive one-year course that he funded himself, Copp learned practical boatbuilding and marine engineering skills that have proven themselves in the workplace. "The IBTC training was ideal for what I wanted and I feel confident to tackle most jobs now. I have been working on a freelance basis in a boatyard over the last few years and I continue to learn. Every boat is different."
There's no doubt that many older workers have the capacity, the temperament and the desire to retrain. And as a third of workers will be older than 50 by 2020, according to predictions from the Office for National Statistics, this is good news for making sure workers' skills match what employers need.
But are apprenticeships the right way to help people change career direction or pursue new skills? If they are, should we be doing even more to fund and encourage older people to enter engineering by this path? Or should apprenticeships be safeguarded as a route into work for the young?
Adrian Lockwood runs a high-tech engineering company and chairs the Oxfordshire Skills Board. "Most of us will likely have two careers these days," he says. "If you can retrain then you can get another job. But there is dwindling support for adult skills training, it's almost non-existent now. The only option is to borrow money."
Martin Porter, head of automotive and engineering at Highbury Further Education College in Portsmouth, adds: "The adult skills budget has been cut by 24 per cent. This affects over-19s, and the cost to them of training will increase as a result. Student loans are available from the age of 24, but some people just don't want to get into that amount of debt."
"The need for education and training does not end at 24; adult retraining and learning matters too," warns Rob Wall, head of education and employment at the CBI. "Levels of part-time study in our colleges and universities, for instance, have seen a catastrophic fall. When someone has a mortgage to pay and children to feed, part-time study may be the only option available."
Adrian Lockwood thinks an apprenticeship is a good way for older people to retrain. "The critical thing is that the apprenticeship must contain vocational, on-the-job training linked to external learning. You need a mixture of hard and soft skills to be truly employable."
One concern is whether the majority of current older apprentices are really gaining new skills or simply receiving training a company would routinely provide to a new employee. Experts point out that many of the apprenticeships for over-50s are classed at the lowest level, called intermediate – equivalent to the qualifications gained at the age of 16 at school.
Lockwood feels there is room for some training at this level. "I can understand the original focus on young unemployed people, but a lot of older people who have gone through the education system have been done a disservice. They deserve another chance."
But he says it's vital that employers endorse the training so that it really leads somewhere. "The good thing about the apprenticeship scheme is that it must be employer-led in line with the latest recommendations. I'm not keen at all on the idea of handing out money just to people who fancy retraining. That doesn't encourage robust training."
Some big companies are already embracing the idea of older apprentices. Centrica employs 36,000 people and voices its commitment to employing and retaining older workers. "We have taken a leading role providing opportunities for older workers by removing upper age limits for apprenticeship schemes," says Alison Hughes, Centrica's head of HR policy and diversity. "Our graduate programme also seeks the inclusion of mature graduates."
One older apprentice, Hitesh Gami, joined Centrica in his forties to pursue engineering. "I'm the oldest in my class," he says, "but as long as you've got the drive and passion to do the work, nothing else matters."
Passion is certainly one of the forces behind the IBTC's new training centre which opens this summer at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, home of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose. Housed in a distinctive 1930s naval building called Boathouse 4, the project has been granted £3.75m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a Boatbuilding and Heritage Skills Training Centre.
As in Suffolk, IBTC Portsmouth students will learn traditional skills required for building, restoring and repairing small boats, from historic naval craft to top-end yachts. While many graduates of IBTC courses go on to work in boatyards across the world, the skills they learn can launch a variety of careers in areas requiring woodworking and construction skills.
The building will also feature a public exhibition of historic small naval boats that have seen centuries of sailors through life-and-death situations across the world.
The training in the new facility will be open to all ages, explains CEO Nat Wilson. "While the majority of our students are over 25, and there's no age limit to joining us, we also encourage and support younger people. We will provide annual heritage bursaries, offering local people currently unemployed or disengaged with education the opportunity to undertake one year's full time traditional boatbuilding training, leading to a level 3 City& Guilds qualification and an IBTC Portsmouth Diploma."
Highbury College is a partner in the project and already works with both large and small marine employers to deliver high-quality training and apprenticeships. While employed with local companies, apprentices can qualify in boatbuilding or marine propulsion at level 2 taking one year, or level 3, taking two years.
"The Boathouse 4 facilities will be equipped specifically to do what we need, so we can train students and at the same time showcase the training to members of the public visiting the Dockyard," explains Porter. "In the workshops our students will learn boatbuilding skills, for example by building a clinker-type boat model, from which they create a glass fibre mould to learn GRP processes. When they move on they build a skiff from a single sheet of marine ply. We also look for opportunities for them to work on real-life projects. On the propulsion side, they learn to diagnose, service and repair the engines and systems on which the industry relies."
So could these apprenticeships be right for career-changers as well as the young? Porter thinks they could. "There's definitely a need for apprentices of all ages. There's a lot going on in the marine industry and recreational sailing, but we also need engineers in manufacturing, aeronautics, automotive and composites. The UK has superb opportunities in these areas." He points to the many high-tech companies located in the Portsmouth area, including Airbus, Lockheed Martin, IBM and BAE Systems. "We need to energise old and young alike to consider engineering."
Without government support, however, apprenticeships may not be viable for older learners. "We need to enable people of all ages to learn, not just the young," says Rob Wall. "The government must ensure that existing financial support is better known and expanded in sensible loan-based ways. But it is also important that rules around equivalent and lower qualifications are not stopping people from retraining through fear of fees."
And as an employer, Adrian Lockwood wants to see more support to assist older apprentices. "Employers only benefit currently from taking on apprentices aged under 25. I want that to change. I feel if someone's been made redundant through no fault of their own, they would make a good, focused trainee."
And is there a practical way to deliver this support? "I think sector grants would encourage companies to take on older apprentices. The training costs could come in tax credits, as we already have for R&D. It would be money well spent," says Lockwood.
Alison Hughes says older workers come with the benefit of additional skills too. "While we invest in developing the skills of our older people, we also know they can play a crucial role growing the abilities of younger members of our workforce. Across the business, we actively encourage mentoring, which ensures vital knowledge and experience is transferred to the younger generation."
The fundamentals are all in place, but there perhaps needs to be some better matchmaking between engineering employers and older apprentices. With such a skills shortage in the sector, the opportunity is there.
Rob Wall thinks ministers and companies must both play their part. "Government needs to develop a strategy for adult skills," he says, "and firms will need to up their game to support the training and development of their workforces. More business-provider collaboration to develop 'learn while you earn' courses, like higher apprenticeships and part-time study alongside work, will also be needed to help people progress in their careers and to plug skills gaps."
Porter sometimes detects a feeling in older learners that apprenticeships are only for the young, but he believes this is a great time to talk about the employment potential offered by UK engineering.