Turning apprenticeships into long-term careers is key

Posted on 24 Jun 2015 by The Manufacturer

The new Government has pledged to make apprenticeships a priority for its next term in office – with a promise to create three million in the next five years to address the UK’s skills gap. With the manufacturing one of the most affected, Darren Bowkett argues that while increasing apprenticeships is important, the sector itself needs to showcase the range of careers, training and opportunities available to retain new talent in the long-term.

Darren Bowkett, technical director at the UK’s largest brick manufacturer, Ibstock.
Darren Bowkett, technical director at the UK’s largest brick manufacturer, Ibstock.

The Conservative Government’s plans to increase the number of apprenticeships are most welcome for the manufacturing sector. However, as the CBI has stated, one of the key factors to make them a success will be giving employers more responsibility and a closer working relationship with government so they translate into long-term careers.

Nurturing talent is something Ibstock is passionate about – I have been at the company since leaving school almost 30 years ago and I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunities, training and support to progress my career.

Following my A Levels, my plan was to head to university. However, I saw that Ibstock – a local company – was looking for entry-level workers in its quality control department. And so, I gave up my university ambitions and my career in manufacturing began – with half of my time initially spent packing bricks on the shop floor.

Now, to many people, this may not sound like the best alternative to going to university.  But I was hooked – and working for Ibstock did not stop my academic ambitions. The company supported me by allowing me to go to college to study for a degree in ceramics, where I came top of my class. Following my graduation, I was promoted to assistant technical manager, and was factory manager by the time I was 30 years old.

From then, my career progressed through several roles, including continuous improvement manager, before I was appointed to the board as technical director in 2013. My role now is hugely varied and covers everything not directly related to production – for example, energy procurement, product innovation and taking overall responsibility for the estates team.

My point here is not to show-off about my success but, that attracting the next generation to a role in manufacturing via an apprenticeship scheme is only half the job done. Retaining them once they’ve finished their apprenticeships is something manufacturers have to focus on.

There are three key ways to achieve this:

Make it relevant

Starting with the apprenticeship itself, it’s important to make it as relevant as possible. At Ibstock, we run our national training programme for mechanical and electrical engineering apprentices across multiple sites.

In the first year, apprentices are studying full-time at the EEF National Technology Training Centre in Aston, Birmingham, with some attending on a residential basis. They also spend at least three days a week in the workshop in a realistic factory environment.

In their second and third years, the apprentices will be at EEF for two weeks and then at their home factory for three weeks, on a rotating basis. The fourth year is spent with Ibstock, undertaking more specialist training for our industry.

EEF’s consistent, quality delivery fully equips our trainees with the deep knowledge and skills they need to attain their BTEC and NVQ Level 3 Extended Diploma in Engineering Maintenance. The high level of practical technical skills our apprentices will achieve will set them in good stead for their future careers.

Training and Support

Training and support shouldn’t finish at the end of the apprenticeship. What has kept me at the same company for nearly 30 years is the level of training I have received to help me progress my career.

As well as internal training, external courses via organisations such as NEBOSH to gain health & safety and IEMA to gain environmental qualifications can help someone progress their career. I was also supported through Open University courses in management.

Variety and opportunity

For me, the opportunity lies in promoting the brick industry as an exciting sector to build a career in. Perceptions that it’s ‘old-fashioned’ are simply no longer true – we mix specialist hand-crafted skills with the latest in advanced manufacturing techniques, using automation and robotics.

It’s also an exciting and versatile product to work with and can be used to realise some of the most ambitious architectural visions while maintaining excellent durability and environmental credentials. Our products have been used in many award-winning designs and we have established partnerships with RIBA and several architectural colleges. So, showcasing the sheer variety of career options available within the industry is key to retaining talented people.

So, in short, there are several ways for the manufacturing sector to attract and retain the best talent.  Apprenticeships are the first step – then it’s about showcasing the variety of career opportunities available.  As a one-company man myself, I want to nurture the next generation and show them the career-long possibilities in brick.