Engineering firms need to get serious on practical skills

A new training centre could set the model for increasing prestige and employability for young engineers but only if industry gets behind it.

The idea that the education system doesn’t prepare young people for the world of work is a well-worn complaint. Engineering graduates, we’re told, may have learnt the theory but too often lack the practical skills that make them employable.

You’d think that apprenticeships, with their mix of vocational training and on-the-job experience, would avoid this problem. Not the case, according to engineering employers in South Yorkshire, where local colleges stand accused of not adequately preparing apprentices for the workplace. Too many apprentices were reportedly not arriving for work on time or displaying the necessary work ethic.

It’s a charge that older generations frequently love to lob at the young, gazing through rose-tinted glasses at their own hard-working early years and too quickly forgetting that no one starts work as a model employee. We’ve written before on The Engineer on the importance of recognising the difference between teaching and training, and the need for employers to take responsibility of building a strong, productive workforce rather than expecting staff to arrive fully-formed.

But the firms in South Yorkshire (with the help of Sheffield University and the government) have done just that with the launch of a new training centre dedicated to producing engineers who can hit the ground running.

Attached to the University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the centre has just begun training 150 advanced apprentices but plans to develop itself into a regional (if not national) hub for engineering education and career development at every stage of working life.


As well as a range of engineering courses, it offers apprenticeships in business administration and technical sales. Schools programmes, foundation and bachelors degree pathways and industrial doctorates are also on the cards. It even intends to run graduate training programmes that offer to bring recently employed university leavers up to speed in practical engineering skills.

It’s a very persuasive offering. When I visited the centre yesterday for an event to attract more employer involvement, the companies already giving it their backing – from Boeing and Rolls Royce to local engineering firms of all sizes – spoke of the genuine need to increase the quality and status of apprenticeship training. And the AMRC Training Centre appears to have the facilities, the staff, and the attitude to give it a good start.

That’s not to say it will be easy. Managing programmes that cover every stage of learning within one organisation will be a huge challenge. And if it wants to become a national centre of excellence that can genuinely increase and improve the skills base it will need to attract the best talent from across the country and from a much wider range of people. Of the 150 apprentices who started in January, only ten were women and only four of those were studying engineering. And despite Sheffield’s 20 per cent ethnic minority population I saw only white faces among the trainees.

However, the centre may already have hit on a model that will help it to bring some much-needed prestige to engineering and apprenticeships. Its association with the AMRC and the university bring with it backing from global businesses and links to world-class engineering. The centre is based in a shiny new 5,500m2 building alongside the AMRC facilities and new Rolls Royce factory between Sheffield and Rotherham. And this location on an old slag heap close to the site of the Battle of Orgreave – one of the most violent conflicts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s –highlights how the local area but also the country as a whole is attempting to rebuild on its industrial heritage using high-technology and cutting-edge research.

The AMRC is one of seven centres in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and if the other parts of the network can replicate the model it may make a serious contribution to the creation of the new generation of highly skilled engineers we are so often told the country needs.

The issue, as ever, will be money. The AMRC Training Centre was funded by £12.5m from the government’s Regional Growth Fund and the £5m from the EU. (Courses are paid for by government and employers.) There will always be such grants to apply for but as the deficit reduction programme continues it will be ever more important for industry to make its own investments. If engineering firms really do want to see better skilled employees arriving at their doors, they may need to put their money where their mouths are.