All inclusive

Manufacturers are desperate for good apprentices. As Annie Gregory discovers, it would help if they forgot the stereotypes and took a wider approach

Are we living in an economic madhouse? While the Government aims to get half our youngsters into universities, research from the University of Kent shows that one in three graduates lands in a job that doesn’t require a degree. That’s three or four years slogging to end up where they could have been at 18, with an income instead of a mountain of debt. Meanwhile, bright youngsters don’t even cast a second glance at the apprenticeships on offer while thousands of sensible but unskilled adults are stuck in jobs that use only a fraction of their latent capabilities.

The Government has promised seven and a half million new training places, although details are scant. It’s good news if they are aimed at giving industry the higher level skills it needs to avert a looming demographic crisis. But it will only address half the issue if they aim solely at addressing basic skills and getting the unemployed back to work. So, while the mills grind, what can manufacturing do to start saving itself today?

Firstly, it can shake up its own thinking. Mention the word ‘apprentice’ in manufacturing and most people automatically think of a lad around 16 to 18. It’s a shortsighted stereotype. Skilled woman are making a huge contribution but there simply aren’t enough of them. Meanwhile, many bemoan the lack of young applicants without even looking at their own adult workforce. Of course, the implicit ageism of the existing funding structure hasn’t helped, although this may be changing (more anon). Nonetheless, there is evidence that many SMEs, deliberately or unthinkingly, operate a barrier that is sometimes set as low as the mid-20s.

Ged Leahy, director of strategic workforce and skills planning at Rolls-Royce, has a firm grasp of the realities: “If you take the manufacturing engineering population in any organisation, we have a huge demographic issue. Most companies say up to half their people are over 50. We have traditionally had a low natural attrition rate in these populations. That is going to triple and quadruple in the next three to five years through retirement. We need a pipeline to all potential recruits simply to stand still because we know we are not going to be able to replace them through existing channels.”

Graham Schuhmacher, head of learning services, explains Rolls-Royce’s three strategic routes into apprenticeship: 14 to 16; 18 to 20 and adult. The first is via Young Apprentices, run in conjunction with schools: “It has had little or no publicity and yet it is an outstanding programme. We have dealt with around 90 youngsters over our three intakes. We see it as a great recruitment route for the future. They are working on part of their apprenticeship while they are with us, but then going back to school and applying what they know to maths, science, communication, English. It’s a really good vehicle for us to see them over a two year period – and they know us and what they are applying for as well.” Industry as a whole gains from this scheme: “The need to keep children involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects from 12, 13, 14 is critical. Young Apprenticeship delivers that. The benefits of having them in the workplace seeing how the technology is actually used is huge. When they go back to school, instead of just hearing someone droning on about maths and science, they can actually distil that into something real, live and meaningful for them.”

Schuhmacher thinks many of the normal 16 year-old apprenticeships will be filled by that route. It’s a warning that companies who sit back and wait for the magic age may already be missing the boat.

The second is the established 18- to 20-year old route. The third involves adults. “A whole group of people between 25 and 40 have got to a point where they want another look at their lives,” he explains. “So far we have trained our own semi- and unskilled people and they are superb because they value their second chance.” These apprentices do the same framework as any other; it’s important to have that recognition among colleagues, unions and management. But they also gain accreditation for existing skills and knowledge, which often shortens the time taken. Over a hundred of Rolls-Royce’s adult apprentices have qualified in the past five years.

Ged Leahy, however, points out one salient problem here – cost. “We have been lobbying for adult apprenticeships at level 3 for a long time. You cannot fill this gap with school-leavers alone. The Government has understood that and is up for it. But the issue is funding. I do not think it is up for that at the same level.” It costs most companies around £60,000 plus benefits to deliver apprenticeships in engineering over the three years. “The Government still seems to have three levels in their mind: a reasonable amount for 16 to 18 – around £13,000 to £14,000; a reducing sum over 18; and again over 25.”

It’s a moot point. There is currently virtually no cash generally available for post-25 level 3 apprenticeships. It’s ageism and it runs directly contrary to the spirit of the Government’s own discrimination legislation. There may, however, shortly be some alleviation. According to Lee Hopley, senior economist of EEF: “LSC’s new document outlining funding priorities for the next three years has allocated £90 million to expand apprenticeships for those over 25. I imagine it will cover both those already in work and new apprentices, although the report doesn’t go into that much detail.” EEF is adamant that this route must be used to upskill existing workforces as well as the unemployed. “If the Leitch target of 500,000 apprentices by 2020 has been accepted, it is just not feasible that they will all come from 16 to 18 year olds,” says Hopley. Why oh why can’t these things be spelled out from the beginning? You heard it here: there could be more money for adult apprentices floating round in the next financial year. If you are using a ‘train to gain’ broker, now is a good time to start asking. Let’s hope there’s substance behind the statement.

Back to today’s world. Schuhmacher has specific strategies for attracting both girls and ethnic minorities. “We are doing a lot of work with schools, ethnic and religious communities to try to get people to apply, and we have set ourselves targets. It is not acceptable to employ at levels below those of the community we operate in.” The initiative has been running for the last two years and it’s a big success. Girls are a longer term project. Rolls-Royce starts working with them as early as five, and every year thereafter to keep them interested. “Our own apprentices work with them in school; we have taster days in the company; and we show them that engineering is about teamworking, communication and problem solving.” He aims to start before teachers, parents and society start planting ideas about hairdressing, vets, or working with horses. It includes running outdoor events for 12- to 14-year olds with the Outward Bound Trust, specifically to get them interested in teamworking, and to show them how it fits into an engineering environment. The company then keeps in touch with them, sending them apprentice literature and targeting them in a recruitment programme. “You have to be consistent and think long term – you are not going to turn this round in a year – and you have got to get some success stories. We have some really good role models,” he explains.

One of them is Claire-Marie Simpson, described by Rolls-Royce as an outstanding second year apprentice. Yet, despite enjoying and passing GCSEs in sciences, engineering and maths at school, she was nearly lost to industry. When Rolls-Royce caught up with her, she was considering taking a nursing diploma. “There wasn’t a clear link with what I could do afterwards,” she explained to me. “What’s lacking out there is the careers advice to give you the facts. I didn’t see apprenticeships as an option when I left. We had a sixth form, so they wanted most people to take the natural progression and stay on. “Instead, she carried on with AS levels and worked as a staff trainer for a food chain and an assistant manager in a shop. She saw that as a great opportunity to understand how different people work, and she has transferred those skills to her new workplace. The AS levels were a different matter: “I couldn’t remain committed because I couldn’t see where they were taking me. Even though I am quite good academically, it was boring. That’s why I spent a lot of time building myself up in the jobs I had.” The turning point came when she accompanied her mother to a Rolls-Royce open evening at a local church. Her mother, a teacher, went so she could explain apprenticeship to her pupils. It brought Claire-Marie, however, a sudden realisation of what exactly she wanted to do. Now she is half-way through her mechanical engineering and BTEC qualification and confident she has made the right decision. She now takes part in Rolls-Royce’s open evenings and career days to help others avoid becoming ‘lost in transition’ (her words) between school and a rewarding engineering career.

Would you like apprentices like this? Who wouldn’t? Note, however, that even Rolls-Royce is still at under five per cent female intake, although it’s creeping up by one per cent a year. “You’ve got to think we will be around 20 per cent in five to six years if we work really hard at it,” explains Schuhmacher. “At the same time you have to help the managers and workforce realise that a balanced workplace is a healthier one. In the 80s we had some less than reconstructed male managers but you don’t hear any of that today.” Following suit might – just might – be enough to keep manufacturing afloat if the private sector gets the government support it needs.