Graduates vs apprentices – the hard choice

Posted on 28 Aug 2014 by Ruari McCallion

Businesses across the country and in all sectors are recruiting – but do manufacturing companies prefer graduates or apprenticeships? We may be seeing a shift, Ruari McCallion reports.

It is very good news that the UK economy is picking up sufficiently that employers in all sectors are seeking to hire more staff – it has been a recruitment-free recovery for some time. But what sort of people are they seeking to take on? For the past 20 years, education and training strategy has been focused on boosting the numbers of graduates and youngsters generally have been directed towards university for their post-18 training. Are the country’s employers – SMEs especially – content with this? Straws in the wind indicate that the answer is ‘not entirely’.

A report published in July from Sandler Training, a business consultancy service, used data from a survey of over 1000 SMEs. It indicated found that academic qualifications are “losing out to practical skills”, which, the report claimed: “can deliver more tangible effects on a business”. The research found SMEs splitting their preference for filling entry-level positions 51-49% in favour of those taking the vocational path, a trend expected to continue. Those companies surveyed said that they expected to be increasing their apprenticeship hiring by 20% in five years’ time but boosting graduate recruitment by only seven per cent.

Hard choices

The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) ninth annual Engineering and Technology: Skills & Demand in Industry report, published at the end of July, found that more than half of employers are having difficulties recruiting the staff they need. Around 40% of the respondents said they had difficulty recruiting engineering graduates and technicians and almost 80% said that it was hard to find senior personnel, those with five to 10 years’ experience. But less than one-fifth reported issues with recruiting apprentices.

“Whether the UK is ‘falling out of love’ with academic training is an issue perhaps more suitable for debate by those working within the sector itself,” said Andrew Cooksley, managing director of ACT, the largest training provider in Wales. “What we do know, as vocational study providers, is there has undoubtedly been a rise in the number of people looking towards the type of practical training roles offered by apprenticeships.” The interest is particularly noticeable in engineering and manufacturing, where the number completing ACT apprenticeships has risen by over 38%. He suggests that the trend might be driven by employers looking for ‘hard skills’ over ‘pure’ academic qualifications.

“For us in the electrical engineering sector, there is often a lack of practical knowledge from graduates and a lack of theoretical knowledge from apprentices, which is a difficult balance to achieve,” said Mark Beswick, managing director of R&B Switchgear Group, a specialist engineering company with customers in sectors ranging from nuclear power and transport to petrochemical, defence, aerospace and other industries. He suggests that a growing economy gives employers the opportunity to invest more in training and to look at different ways of recruiting. He started as an apprentice himself.

Money no object?

“Businesses shouldn’t be put off by the cost of training an apprentice,” he said. “For us, putting an apprentice through the appropriate training costs around £20,000; with additional training for specialist work areas this ends up being closer to £25,000. However, without this investment, we would not be able to operate in specialist sectors such as offshore, which accounts for around 25% of our business.” But he stresses the importance of balance; R&B Group recruits experienced staff as well. It’s a point with which Margaret Wood, founder and MD of specialist glazing manufacturer ICW UK Ltd, wholeheartedly agrees.

“You have to appreciate that different teams need different skills,” she said. “I have sometimes come across prejudice against people who have not been to university; they can be undervalued. On the other hand, people coming out of university sometimes want to run everything! You need a spread of skills.”

She identifies the apprenticeships’ appeal as the ability to take people from school, shape and mould them and inculcate the values of the business. For SMEs, graduates come with a lot of knowledge but also with a risk factor: that they could be more likely to move on, having cost a lot of money. She also asserts that skills need not be higher or lower, whatever route has been followed – but that opinion does not appear to be shared by Sarginsons Industries Ltd, a technically advanced low-pressure aluminium casting company based in Coventry.

Can’t live without them…

“Modern technologies are available to smaller companies but to try and use them without any graduate staff will, in our view, lead to failure,” is the trenchant observation of Mark Nunan, director of Sarginsons and other engineering companies. “The importance of a degree is not in the subject studied but in the fact that students are taught to think, to analyse and to report in a logical structured manner.” This is not to say that the company has abandoned apprenticeships.

“We have a continual improvement plan that seeks to fine tune every single aspect of our business process,” he explained. “While apprentices, shop floor and professionally qualified staff are key to this we believe it is essential that our senior management pipeline takes advantage of the strength of graduates now emerging from UK universities.” The company practices what it preaches, having become the low pressure casting development partner to Brunel University’s Advanced Metal Casting Centre (AMCC). It sees this kind of arrangement as key to developing the mix of skills required, blending hands-on, gut-feel skills with academic learning.

“The problem in the UK is that management of smaller companies is dominated by people that once worked on the shop floor and they often fail to see what can be delivered by graduates,” he said. “UK small businesses currently need graduates far more than they need apprentices but they do not realise it. This is why UK small companies do not evolve and grow in the same way as their US and European counterparts.”