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Engineering firms need to get serious on practical skills

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.


Future workforce: The AMRC has started with 150 advanced apprentices.

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.

Readers' comments (16)

  • How refreshing to hear of something that appears to be aimed at having a positive impact and actually helping, rather than just another training program that does nothing other than fudge the figures. Seems like money well spent for once.

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  • A major problem is finding people who can and want to teach these skills.

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  • It is about time. It is indeed perplexing to find talented graduates that can't successfully translate "mental" to "physical". Those that question "how tight should i tighten it?" You'll know, you'll feel it" (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

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  • Good to see. Hands on experience is the only way forward before the old boys network has gone forever, train with an elder and you will learn so much more from them than any text book or ipad, as they have been there, seen it, and done it in many cases.

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  • If the State Education system didn't require us to also teach school leavers the basic standard of English and Maths one used to need at the eleven plus, I'd be more appreciative of this effort.

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  • For over 30 years industry has been complaining about the quality of young people. In the 70's and 80's we were so short of IT skills staff were brought in from the US now they are desperate for Indian staff. Has anyone thought of recruiting our own people and ensuring they feel part of the company?
    How many motivated employees are we ignoring because they do not fill an HR recruitment template but could be trained to add value to the company?

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  • Too many firms of all disciplines have for way too long wanted to "Poach" employees from other firms in similar industries ~often rather than even consider anybody else that they may have to spend any money on with some specific training.

    This has been the case in large parts of the engineering industry for 20 years or more in my experience

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  • I agree with the concepts behind these approaches-surely the aim is to develop fully rounded individuals-with the combination of theory and practice necessary for success in technology.
    I would also invite additional consideration of the ideas propounded by CP Snow in the 50s -the two cultures, the Arts and the Sciences integrated in an educated person. There is surely a place for the study of classical paintings, architecture, music, literature in a course as described. At least I hope there is?

    Professor Stan Harvey at Coventry once said to me: "We can teach our undergraduates to be the best on earth (and we did try!) BUT if they cannot tell anyone else how clever they are, what was the point!" The development of speaking, presentation and writing skills was just as important as knowledge of the technology.

    let me set a hare running! [and that is an artistically based analogy, or is it a simile, I am but a simple Engineer]

    If I am honest, have I ever used the vast store of pure mathematics (and indeed most of the Applied mathematics that I was forced to study (and pass!) whilst at University? I must admit, I have not. That has not stopped me making my contribution(s) in my field of textiles and textile machinery. Did at least the background of this mathematical material that I have within my brain contribute? If it did, I have yet to see why and how?

    There is a part of my thinking which believes that a significant percentage of technical academics seek to show how clever they are by developing mathematical views within Engineering: when in fact it is the practicalities of its use which define a true Engineer. I have to believe that Rembrandt, or Thackeray, Shakespeare, or Goette had neither knowledge of nor interest in the equations that defined the flow of paint via the hairs of their brush or that of ink via their quill onto canvas or parchment, but this did not stop them from being the 'masters' they were.
    I could go on!
    Mike B

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  • The more things change the more they stay the same.
    I am coming up to retiring and in all my years of working in engineering the same things have been said time and time again. We need people with practical skills not just theory, how often have we heard highly intelligent but no common sense?
    Education is key to our countries future no doubt about it, but we are falling behind China and India why?
    Have we forgotten our past?
    Did all of our great engineers have university degrees?
    Go back to apprenticeships, day or block release in TECHNICAL collages and teach practical skills alongside theory.
    As for lack of people to teach those skills look around there is a wealth of skilled people who have been pushed out, made redundant too make room for graduate engineers in the belief they are the future! Where are they now?
    Does not the adage learn to walk before you run come to mind?
    We keep coming back to the fact that you need a degree to be an “Engineer” whereas most engineers in the past and my age had only RSA’s, A levels, B Techs, City & Guilds, ONC’s and HNC qualifications or less yet look at our past……………….

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  • I have 6 apprentices and they have brought a youthful exuberance into the work place, the skilled workers enjoy sharing their knowledge and the apprentices are eager to learn. They are also completing NVQ's as well as College courses, its vital that the system works as they are the future of the Company.

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