Education and industry: manufacturing the links

Posted on 5 May 2010 by The Manufacturer

Apprenticeships have been touted as having a key role in our skills strategy, but some companies say a sense of apathy towards manufacturing continues to hamper progress in attracting young people into industry. Mark Young investigates the problems and uncovers some initiatives in action that are providing solutions.

Skills gaps are rife throughout many areas of manufacturing; in the advanced and emerging industries, around which the UK wants to centre it’s ‘new economy’, they are in severe deficit. The situation looks set only to get worse as an ageing work force fetches its pipe and slippers throughout this decade. The Government thinks apprenticeships are a good way to remedy these problems but a sense of unease continues to surround vocational skills provision in manufacturing. Fortunately there are a number of initiatives around the country seeking to help.

Costly business
For small businesses especially, apprenticeship programmes can carry considerable cost. Kevin Parkin, managing director of Sheffield based heavy engineering firm DavyMarkham, estimates that his company’s total spend on its 18 apprentices is £300,000 a year. He’s unperturbed and is now set to take on a further five but he thinks the money that goes into running apprenticeship based quango operations would be more effectively spent if provided directly to employers. He says hype is built up around support and funding systems but they “just doesn’t reach the employers”.

“There is a crazy administration system between government and end users whereby funding is soaked up by worthless bureaucracy in the form of training advisers, intermediaries and moderators,” he says. “I would go for a system where funding is given to employers directly and just takes out all these middle men who are providing nothing – no single service which is useful to anyone.” The training for 16 to 18 year old apprentices is paid for by the Treasury through the National Apprenticeship Service. A 50% subsidy is available for 18-25 year olds and contributions can be made towards tutoring for anyone older. However, all of the costs associated with onsite supervision, support, mentoring and any necessary equipment must be footed by the firm.

The employer must also pay wages of course; £95 per week is the minimum, although NAS research finds an average of £175 per week is actually paid. A ten week scheme called the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE) which offered grants of £2,500 where the apprentice was a previously unemployed 16 or 17 year old concluded in March. Meanwhile, the Conservative manifesto for the upcoming general election includes a £2,000 bonus for any company taking on a new apprentice.

The education business
Mr Parkin highlights a bigger issue though; the fact that there is still an underlying culture in the UK of promoting academic rather than vocational career progression routes as a more attractive option to young people. “There are too many kids going to university on a full time basis with no prospect of a job at the end of it,” he says.

Mike Ottolangui is managing director of Milltech Precision Engineering Limited – a specialist machining company based in Norwich, Norfolk that employs 31 people and takes on two apprentices a year. He agrees with Mr Parkin; the problem, he says, is his company can’t attract talent because the school system is detached from the needs of industry.

“The schools don’t encourage people to look at opportunities within our industry,” he says. “They tend to direct them towards building societies, banks and insurance companies. The teachers and careers advisers have no knowledge of industry these days so they don’t send them this way for work experience or anything like that. We’ve tried on a number of occasions to form relationships with the local schools to encourage young people into this area of business but the schools don’t seem to have any interest whatsoever.

“So we then advertise for young people who are looking for work and they invariably tend to be the ones that haven’t been successful in other more fashionable industries and therefore they are generally a lower quality of candidate.” Jackie Freeborn, chief executive of Business & Education South Yorkshire (b&e), says at a recent business breakfast set up for local firms to discuss apprenticeships, two manufacturers reported that their 20 year strategies include potentially moving production to Asia. This is not because of any perceived cost benefits but because they feel there will not be the necessary skills in this country to support their operations. “It broke my heart to hear that,” she said.

It is views like this that have led to the formation of a scheme called Workwise, developed by b&e and local companies. DavyMarkham is among the sixty employers from the region that are involved. The initiative will be promoting the values of vocational learning routes, including the new diploma in manufacturing, as well as developing the skills and attributes needed for a future in the sector. This will allow children from the age of 14 to carry out work placements on a part-time basis over two years and earn a qualification. Learners will spend up to 25 days a year with a company and will gain experience and units towards a qualification in various business disciplines including technical manufacturing, quality assurance, accounting and office disciplines. “The Workwise scheme also aims to give teachers and parents a better understanding of the opportunities available in manufacturing too,” says Jackie.

As well as providing its matching service, b&e holds events for businesses, including the aforementioned breakfast discussions, and supplies information on career pathways to schools. It has made part of its mission to break down commonly held misconceptions of a career manufacturing. One way it will do is through the Made in Sheffield challenge which will see groups of school children working to find viable solutions or improvements to real companies’ operations.

In addition DavyMarkham is working with local colleges to provide HNC and degree courses which would take a similar time to complete – one year and three years respectively – but would be completed part time while the student works at the firm.

“If kids come on our Workwise course they may choose to come into manufacturing and could then be sponsored through university,” says Kevin Parkin.

“It’s a much more sustainable route – for kids and for industry. For us it’s a good way to identify potential apprentices and potentially, it will lead on to a young person gaining a degree at the age of 22, having earned money along the way and leaving with no debt.” Mr Ottolangui’s situation in Norwich could be made easier this year by the launch of the Open Academy – a new college for which engineering is a key focus and which will also be offering the Engineering Diploma.

Milltech is in the process of developing a relationship with the academy but this is still something traditional schools need to get on board with, he maintains.

Unlocking opportunities

In Mr Ottolangui’s opinion cost is not an issue; as long as a decent apprentice is sourced and managed properly the money spent is offset by the value-add the apprentice provides by actively participating in operations. However, some smaller manufacturers contend that in fact they do not have the resources or the infrastructure to give a new apprentice the base level of knowledge they need to begin contributing operations. The Apprenticeship Extension Programme, open to firms with less than 250 employees, has been set up in the West Midlands to counter this objection.

It will see apprentices trained initially at either Jaguar Land Rover or Warwickshire College to Apprenticeship Level Two before transferring to an SME firm to continue their development.

Ian Eva, manager of apprenticeship programmes and external networks at Jaguar Land Rover, says: “It is a great opportunity for large organisations like ourselves to help overcome some of the difficulties and concerns SMEs have in recruiting apprentices. This pilot is based on providing, in very practical terms, core engineering skills with the emphasis on developing not only competencies but employability.” The St Helens Chamber is another organisation helping to bridge the gap between learners and businesses with its school leavers’ placement programme. This places teens that wouldn’t usually have access to an apprenticeship with companies that don’t traditionally offer them. The Merseyside based organisation runs an initiative funded by the local council, offering disadvantaged youths a 12 month employment contract and pays their £95 per week wages while seeking an apprenticeship place at a company in the candidate’s chosen field on their behalf. The Chamber continues to pay the wages until the company deems the match suitable and takes over full employer responsibilities themselves.

When a candidate first enters the scheme there is a three week initiation period during which they earn qualifications in things like health and safety and manual handling, while St Helens Chamber finds the work placement. There have been 87 young people enter the programme with successful employment gained for 73%.

Christine Barton, training services manager at St Helens Chamber, says: “Our school leavers’ employment programme has been a huge success, opening employers’ eyes to the benefits that young people can bring to their business, as well as helping to tackle youth unemployment in the Borough.

“By facilitating the apprenticeship programme, both from a training delivery and administrative point of view, we have been able to remove any barriers that may have held employers back in the past from investigating apprenticeships as a way of expanding or developing their workforce.” John Lucas, skills adviser for the British Chambers of Commerce, agrees that there is still a certain level of bureaucracy involved in the support systems for apprenticeships.

However, “the situation has got a lot better over the last couple of years and will continue to improve,” he asserts. Some of the initiatives in this article – whether public or private and administrative or industry led – would suggest that he is correct. If you are a small company that would like to get involved in apprenticeships but have misgivings owing to obstacles there’s a good chance that there’ll be schemes similar to the ones described above available in your area to help. If you’re a larger manufacturer, why not look to partake in schemes yourself that could help your supply chain and your industry to up skill? A smarter stronger UK manufacturing workforce can only be of benefit for the industry in the long run.

Apprentice success

Alan Dunn Operations Director, BAE Systems Submarine Solutions, Barrow

Alan Dunn has worked his way from the shop floor to the boardroom of Britain’s biggest defence company.

He is now responsible for overseeing 2,000 employees. He began his working life as an apprentice caulker at Govan on the Clyde in 1977.

His current position involves overseeing all production and manufacturing activity associated with the Astute submarine programme.

Jim McColl

Now reportedly the richest man in Scotland with an £800m fortune, Jim ‘Mr Manufacturing’ McColl began as an apprentice at Weir Pumps in 1967. As a 16 year old he earned £4.75 a week. Forty years later, he bought the company and incorporated it into Clyde Blowers – the company he bought into as a loss making, family-owned £4m turnover business in 1992 and has built into a multi-national firm which owns over 80 other companies and with revenues of more than £1bn today.

Anton Barrick

Perkins Engines fourth year apprentice Anton Barrick, was given the Outstanding Achievement by a Final Year Apprentice award at EEF’s National Future Manufacturing Awards in February.

Anton works within an elite team working on Perkin’s newly built crank line facility in Peterborough and the EEF awards judges said they were won over by his enthusiasm, ingenuity, problem solving and “quite simply, by the pleasure he takes in his work!” Anton has also been involved at careers fairs to try and entice more young people into apprenticeships.

“I’ve wanted to be an engineer since I was a child,” said Anton. “I plan to progress through the part time academic route through college to university and to achieve a degree that’s recognised by IMechE. Then I’ll work to become a fully chartered engineer.”

Apprentices’ views
Apprentices from cold-roll forming company Hadley Group share their views on their chosen training route:

Does manufacturing have a problem with its public image and does this matter?
D. Kemp & T. Worley (first year):

“Yes, we believe it has a negative image to the public due to the likes of global warming and pollution. People have a restricted view when it comes to manufacturing and engineering.”

Do we need to attract more people into manufacturing in the UK? Why?
A. Maiden, S. Mullins & S. Brown (second year):

“We feel that manufacturing in the UK needs more British workers as manufacturing in the UK is decreasing and moving to other countries due to cheaper labour. Manufacturing offers great career opportunities and would be good to bring back home.”

How did you hear about your apprenticeship and was it competitive to win your place?
R. Connell:

“I heard about the job through the Job Centre and to be honest had no idea what the job entailed. I was one out of 101 and there were only three places so it was competitive. I think the problem is that there are too few applicants of a certain quality.”