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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)

  • You don't need a degree to work in the engineering sector. It depends what area of engineering you want to be. I think the idea that all engineering graduates are incapable engineering or designing for manufacturing is incorrect. That is painting them all with the faults of a few. Experience brings more skills and if you focus on manufacturing from a technical view point then you are obviously going to excel at this. However you will be relatively poor in other areas. In the past the UK really lost out in engineering and manufacturing because it was too focus on these limited skills so we ended up with poor quality cars for example. We even sold the Mini at a loss. Engineering wasn't great back in the recent past (post ww2). The engineering we have today has evolved into high value and highly skilled manufacturing. This is where a degree makes a big difference. Germany not only educates its engineers to undergraduate level it is common place to find them with PhDs as well. China create more degree qualified engineers than most if not all other countries. The world has moved on since the past. Without a degree you won't survive. Equally we need people with the skills as a technician to manufacture. They are two different areas.

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  • Very refreshing indeed!
    Living in Ghana-Africa and reading this makes me feel more, the need for developing nations such as ours to embark on similar programs that can churn out "ready-made" hands on people for the job.
    We may be some years away from similar approach but I will be keen to have suggestions about where Industries can start if they should decide to use their own facilities as starters......

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  • The comment about today’s youth who lack the discipline to arrive at work or college on time rings true and I also think colleges where there are a high concentrations of male youths together can be a catalyst for bad behaviour, mainly because there will always be one or two bad apples who will encourage it.
    Lack of parental discipline as well as poor control in school results in a good number of dilatory youths coming into the job market. I think if those find their way into an adult dominated environment they soon begin to toe the line and become a unified member of a work force because there is none or very little misguidance in this environment. I therefore think old style apprenticeships where an apprentice was tied to a single tradesman or Engineer has many merits. For larger companies I think they need to find ways for education of the science and mathematics in small numbers in the work place, by either educated staff or trained educators being bought in. I know Ford wished to bring all its HNC and HND Engineers up to degree level a number of years ago and managed to negotiate with Essex University to bring in Lecturers evenings and weekends for this purpose, and I think it was a good success.
    I believe such schemes could be negotiated by smaller companies to train apprentices in Maths, Sciences and Technical Theory at the work place in meeting rooms after hours. One advantage of this is that the curriculum could be tailored to the industry in question and there would be smaller classes with good chance of better disciplinary behaviour.

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  • @John Wood, a new study suggests that a lot of these behavioural problems may stem from excessive health and safety legislation:

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  • I totally agree with Ray Edwards. At 16 with 11 RSA's & HNC physics endorement we all knew that the world did not owe us a living & self employment was possible as we left school knowing how to manufacture. geography tought us where in the world we were, so exporting our, deigned & manufactured VHF & Microwave Downconvertors, yes, at 16, was not a problem.
    The problem is teachers with NO INDUSTRIAL EXPERIANCE (5 years minimum) practicing the subject they will / may teach.
    The difficulty with finding industrially experianced teachers will go away if all the hoops go. Charisma counts, but the ability to demonstrate relevence & application is essential to light a spark. The government does not & does not want to know this, as all engineers to them are 2nd Class / little men....what cabinet member has any experience of manufacturing ? which of them has bet the farm on his own R&D ? No mistake, if you do R&D, manufacturing & export, it's you who are top of the tree....just do not expect any serious help. I agree, we did not, but should have found time for history of art & music

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  • No, its NOT Engineering firms that need to improve engineering schools, as they were doing 40...50 years ago. Ages 14....16 are the years to teach Maths/applied maths/eng lang/english lit/CAD Drawing/fine limit metalwork-CAM/woodwork & modern materials-methods+ geography, history (of art would be nice...evenings) physics & chemistry....yes, all these subjects.

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