WHILE the interest in joining the UK engineering industry is staying low, the number of apprentices in the country is shooting up. DominiKa Piasecka checks whether apprenticeship schemes can be the answer to the engineering sector’s crisis.

Industry professionals in Manchester and across the UK are becoming increasingly concerned about the small amount of young people interested in pursuing a career in engineering.

According to this year’s Engineering UK report, engineering companies need to recruit 2.56 million people between 2012 and 2022 for the country to benefit economically.

To meet this challenging demand, 163,000 engineering jobs will need to be taken each year. The report estimates that the existing supply stands at 108,000, suggesting a deficit of 55,000 and states the UK will need to double the number of engineering apprentices and graduates entering the industry.

It’s difficult to believe that with the mean salary for all science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates within 6 months from graduation is about £5,000 higher than the average graduate salary, the problem is so widespread.

But the fact is that Britain’s STEM sector is in a skills crisis.

Tackling the problem with training

Engineering companies in Manchester are starting to feel the pressure to keep up the good standards of work despite being unable to employ skilled and experienced staff. Complete Plant Maintenance, based in Old Trafford, offers structured on-the-job training within a number of departments as well as technical certificates in a bid to fight the skills shortage.

Human Resources Officer Carol Ridgers said: “CPM are passionate about investing in people in order to ensure we have the skills to continue to grow the business. Working with local colleges and on-the-job training is key to the success of our ongoing Apprenticeship Scheme.”

The company’s repair workshop is one of the largest in the UK and represents a £3m investment. Its Managing Director David Griffin highlighted the importance of continuous staff training: “Taking on apprentices should not be seen as a luxury that businesses can pull the plug on when times are tough.

“We have a responsibility to invest in our own company’s future and, indeed, the future of our industry. We can all have the best policies, procedures and practices; without people, none of that matters.”

CPM Workshop
CPM’s workshop is used for electro-mechanical repairs and maintenance. Picture: CPM Engineering

“We have a responsibility to invest in our own company’s future and, indeed, the future of our industry. We can all have the best policies, procedures and practices; without people, none of that matters.”

Routes into the industry

Over two thirds of all employers offer apprenticeship schemes now, the figure which has been rising rapidly for the past few years. An alternative to higher education, apprenticeships enable people to make connections in their chosen industry and open doors for the future.

There were 868,700 apprentices in the 2012/13 academic year – the highest number recorded in modern history. Over 10% of those were in engineering or manufacturing. However, Engineering UK, which promotes the role of engineers to society, warned this may not be enough.

Spokesperson for the organisation said: “There are many opportunities for people who want to get into engineering through practical, work-based routes, but we need even more employers to offer quality apprenticeship schemes.”

Engineering infogram

But despite the growing popularity of apprenticeships, there are worries that the ‘learn and earn’ schemes don’t provide young people with the right skills. While being a great route into the industry for school-leavers, there are doubts whether such experience-based learning can properly prepare people to enter the job market and be successful.

Dr Steven Davis, Lecturer in Manufacturing, Automation and Robotics at the University of Salford, said: “One of the disadvantages of apprenticeships is that they can leave the apprentice with skills suited to the company offering the apprenticeship, but of limited use to other companies.

“This can potentially make it difficult for the apprentice to move to other employers in the future. Some companies require a degree for more senior positions which can limit promotion potential.

“The employment prospects for good quality engineers are currently very good due to the lack of qualified and experienced applicants.”

From the horse’s mouth

Les Campbell started off as an apprentice in Blackburn and earned his qualifications along the way. He now works as Site Services, Health, Safety and Environmental Senior Manager at M&I Materials, a manufacturer of specialist materials for the industry and science.

Les said the adoption of computer technology takes away manual hobbies from children such as building Legos, fixing bikes or playing with chemistry sets. He agreed there seem to be a skills shortage: “We have problems recruiting good staff, because there are no apprenticeships now.

“Apprenticeships give you good discipline, the rhythm; you get to know the value of the people you’re working with and for. They give apprentices opportunities to talk to the operator, ask about the problem and develop that relationship with them.”

Les Campbell
Les Campbell, who did an apprenticeship, now holds a senior position and a manufacturing company. Picture: Les Campbell

But how to encourage young people to pursue a career in the industry? “They need to talk to engineers,” said Les. “They need to realise that it is an interesting and exciting job. There are too many people now that don’t want to get their hands dirty… They’re missing out!”

There was one person who wanted to get his dirty since he was a child: Dave Marsden. He’s always been inspired by his engineering family and enjoyed fixing things, and is now employed as Technical and Administrative Supervisor at CPM’s sister company NDC following a successful four-year apprenticeship.

While being trained, Dave had a chance to do a foundation and bachelor’s degrees in electrical and electronic engineering and attended university one day a week and working for the rest.

He said becoming an apprentice is the best way for young people to get into the industry and added: “Apprenticeships are a wonderful way to gain valuable theory mixed with essential practical skills.”

Problem on a larger scale

The lack of skilled workforce even troubled the government, which seems to be very keen on supporting apprenticeship schemes.

Chancellor George Osborne’s summer budget for this year promised an even greater commitment to apprenticeships and workplace training, as well as encouraging more young people to choose STEM subjects.

Plans included significantly increasing the amount of apprenticeships in England from around ½ million in recent years to 3 million by 2020. It was said a levy on bigger UK businesses to fund new apprenticeships will be imposed.

By: DominiKa Piasecka


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