National Apprenticeship Week 2023: Making apprentices with Make UK’s Fiona McGarry

Posted on 9 Feb 2023 by James Devonshire

Make UK, the manufacturers' organisation, focuses on championing industry's growth and success. A significant part of its work is helping to create the next generation of engineers and manufacturing leaders through its apprenticeship programmes. The Manufacturer's James Devonshire recently spoke with Fiona McGarry, Engagement Manager Make UK Apprentice and Skills, to find out more.

The future of manufacturing depends on keeping the talent pipeline full of young people who are looking to become the engineers of tomorrow. Unfortunately, though, manufacturing has a less than attractive image, often thought of as an industry where you’ll come home from work covered in grease and grime.

But I know through my own experience of the manufacturing sector that this image is simply no longer true. Of course, there are still older manufacturing plants that do fit the stereotype, but the reality is many facilities are clean, modern and brimming with exciting technology.

Changing the manufacturing industry’s image and championing the importance of apprenticeships is something that I wanted to discuss with Fiona McGarry, Engagement Manager Make UK Apprentice and Skills.

Fiona has been at Make UK for over five years. Her passion is increasing diversity within STEM and developing programmes and activities to attract more young people to the sector and the apprenticeship route. At Make UK they host schools’ visits from primary through to secondary hoping to inspire more young people to consider Manufacturing and Apprenticeships. Last year they launched the Engineering Apprenticeship Kitemark to encourage companies to follow a Best Practice Model within their Engineering Apprenticeship Schemes.

Fiona McGarry, Engagement Manager Make UK Apprentice and Skills
Fiona McGarry, Engagement Manager Make UK Apprentice and Skills

JD: Please tell us about your background

I’ve been in manufacturing for over 20 years. I used to work at Jaguar Land Rover managing their Education Business Partnership Centres. These centres were located at each JLR site and their primary purpose was to inspire tomorrow’s engineers by working with schools and colleges to promote learning and engagement on STEM subjects. We’d host visits for school children aged seven and up, during which they would get to see first-hand what it was like to work at JLR. The centres were a fantastic initiative and ensured JLR always had youngsters interested in their apprenticeships and career opportunities.

We soon realised that while we were attracting plenty of STEM learners, we weren’t getting enough females. So we developed a programme called Young Women in the Know, which sought to challenge outdated perceptions of engineering and manufacturing as dirty jobs with few career opportunities. The initiative had a massive impact on JLR attracting females to its apprenticeship schemes, so much so that by the time I left, six years ago, 50% of JLR’s apprentice intake was female.

So there’s now a steady stream of females flowing into engineering and manufacturing?

Sadly, it has dropped off quite a bit. At Make UK, we really suffered with the pandemic. We were getting quite a few females coming through to us, but our intake this year of 320 first year apprentices only features 13 girls. So, sadly, we’ve gone backwards. That’s why we’re now doing a lot of work to get females interested again and help them realise that they could have very successful careers in engineering/manufacturing.

For example, we held a Future Maker show in November last year, where we invited 600 young people from different schools around Birmingham to come along to Millennium Point. We worked with local grime artists to develop content which included videos and songs around manufacturing, using our apprentices to help us get our message across. It worked really well because suddenly, young people had role models they could relate to, which piqued their interest to explore engineering/manufacturing more.

Creating relatable role models is key for piquing young people’s interest in potential engineering/manufacturing careers

How do Make UK apprenticeships work?

One of the services we offer at our training centre in Aston is to provide opportunities for individuals to upskill. This is perfect for people who perhaps want to change careers and enter an engineering/manufacturing role. However, the main focus at Aston is apprentices and apprenticeship training.

We have companies coming to us who are looking for apprentices. We advertise the positions on our website, where young people can find out more about the role and apply if they are interested. Once someone has secured an apprenticeship, they then train with us for the first 30 weeks, coming every day. They then go back to their companies while continuing with us one day a week. The great part is that we accommodate all kinds of apprenticeships, from SMEs who are maybe looking for one or two people, to much larger firms who might want 40. It really is a mix.

We also tend to focus on level two and level three apprenticeships, rather than degree apprenticeships. That’s because there’s a real need for apprentices at these levels, which is why roughly 75% of our delivery is in such positions.

Make UK's Technology Hub

The Make UK Technology Hub is the organisation’s state-of-the-art manufacturing training facility in Birmingham.

How can we change manufacturing’s dirty image?

One of the most effective ways is to get manufacturers to open their doors to the local community and showcase exactly what they’re all about. And that’s the crux of Make UK’s National Manufacturing Day, which will be held on 28 September this year.

It’s often difficult for companies, particularly SMEs, to engage with local schools and arrange visits. But through events like National Manufacturing Day, which helps to amplify awareness, companies can begin to engage with the younger generations close to them. It’s all about boosting brand recognition and creating relationships with local education establishments, even just one, to help encourage the talent of tomorrow. And don’t forget primary level learners. As I mentioned earlier, we start engaging with children at the age of seven because that’s typically when they start forming opinions and making high level choices.

We also do scout visits, which work well because they usually involve both boys and girls from different schools, so you get a nice mix.

Make UK scout visit

Scout visits are another way that Make UK seeks to engage younger people

What advice do you have for young people who perhaps aren’t quite sure about their career path and may be considering an apprenticeship?

There’s often a tendency for people to be pushed down the university route. And while it’s perfectly viable and worthwhile, it’s not for everyone. So, my advice for young people is to look into and research apprenticeships. Only by understanding the different options out there can people make informed decisions based on their own personal needs.

The bottom line is you can still end up as the CEO of an organisation via an apprenticeship; you’ll just take a different route to get there. And for some young people, it just suits them so much better.

With an apprenticeship you are basically fast tracked because you’re building those business skills as well as other skills. We’ve actually been highlighting ex apprentices this week, outlining how they have got a lot further in their careers quicker than perhaps their university counterparts. Plus they’ll have been earning throughout and don’t have  the associated debt when they finish.

Particularly for engineering and manufacturing, I do think they’re careers where you are much better off having business exposure. And even if you don’t stay with the organisation after your apprenticeship, you’ll have learnt so much from the people around you, skills for life that you can take forward into other roles. It’s definitely a great career route.

While manufacturing doesn’t sound very exciting initially, once you talk to people and highlight how everything we use on a day-to-day basis is made somewhere in the world, their interest usually picks up. It’s all about showcasing to young people what they could be involved in aerospace, automotive, defence, etc. Even if you’re just within the supply chain, you could actually be touching all of those different sectors within a business.

What challenges are apprenticeship programmes facing right now?

Probably the biggest blocker we’re facing right now is availability of tutors, and that’s likely to be what stops the skills gap being closed. We simply cannot get skilled tutors.

If you’re an engineer, it’s unlikely you’re going to stop to come and teach apprentices what you know in a classroom environment, usually for a lot less money than you’re currently earning. The tutors we do get tend to be at the end of their careers, which is fantastic when it comes to the knowledge they have but doesn’t help with the relatability element. The disconnect between, say, a 16-year-old and a 55-year-old is huge, which doesn’t make for the most intuitive relationship, unfortunately. Becoming an engineer is one skill, working with young people is something else entirely.

We need to be securing tutors who are in their late 20s and early 30s if we’re to really tackle the skills shortage we’re facing.

How are you addressing this challenge?

We’ve run some programmes to highlight how people with relevant industry experience can come to us and become tutors. They don’t need any teaching experience as we’ll provide them with the training for that. The problem is we simply can’t match the salaries, so if we’re going to overcome this challenge, there will need to be some form of government backing.

Make UK apprentices

If the manufacturing industry is to attract and secure the young talent it so desperately needs, there must be more role models that people can relate to

Any final advice, Fiona?

For manufacturers, if you want to attract and engage with the young people you need to drive your business forward, you have to be doing so on their level and on the platforms they use. For example, in an attempt to gain maximum exposure and reach, we used TikTok for our grime content and it worked really well. I know it can be daunting, but these are the platforms where young people can engage with manufacturers organically, making the interaction a lot more natural and meaningful. Embrace the technology and show role models that young people can relate to.

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