David Martin discusses the Oxfordshire Advanced Skills and Apprentice Training Centre at Culham, the site of the UK's nuclear fusion research centre
When I started out as an apprentice with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) in the 1970s, I was just one of 50,000 each year taking this career route into the engineering and manufacturing industries. But, like flared trousers and platform shoes, apprenticeships went out of fashion as more young people opted for university. Now they are making a comeback as organisations like ours seek to plug a skills gap for technicians and engineers – and school leavers realise they can earn while they learn, without being saddled with student loans.
At Culham Science Centre near Oxford, we are building a new £12million base for our Oxfordshire Advanced Skills (OAS) training academy to lead the revival of engineering apprenticeships in the Thames Valley and beyond.
During my UKAEA apprenticeship, the scheme was based at Harwell, the headquarters of the UK’s nuclear research programme. (Formula One MD Ross Brawn had done his apprenticeship there just a few years earlier.) Traditionally UKAEA just offered engineering apprenticeships, but recently the Government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy as well as an employer-apprentice target, and these have resulted in a real step change. The apprenticeship scheme is valuable to us not only in supplying traditional home-grown technicians and engineers, but further afield in HR, finance, IT, communications and procurement departments.
The most important elements for us in delivering the training are high quality provision and that young people finish the scheme ready for work. And I think they are the overwhelming strengths of our apprenticeship scheme.
We have 80 apprentices at OAS this year and the range of qualifications include intermediate apprenticeships at Level 2 (equivalent to five GCSEs), advanced level 3 apprenticeships (equivalent to A level), higher apprenticeship training at technician level, and then the option for the equivalent of a degree at level 6.
After the decline of apprenticeships in the 1990s, UKAEA realised we needed to make up for the gap in our skills profile; we call it the ‘Lost Generation’. That is why we restarted the apprenticeship scheme in 2005, setting very high standards that resulted in over 50 national and regional awards. We also got involved as an industrial partner to help establish the University Technical College in nearby Didcot. This is a specialist college for science and engineering which opened in 2015. Oxfordshire is one of the UK’s main centres of hi-tech innovation and is therefore dependent on access to young, skilled professionals. The UTC has made a real difference to our apprentice intake.
But UKAEA, alongside the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC, another major scientific employer) also identified the need in the region for a training hub to meet the hi-tech skills shortage and to ensure there are enough high quality technicians and engineers across the workforce. That was the original thinking when we opened the Oxfordshire Advanced Skills pilot scheme at Culham in 2016. In fact, some 80 per cent of those trained on site here will be employed not by us, but by industry customers across the Thames Valley.
Our apprentices receive employer-led practical skills training which industry requires, in addition to academic learning. We’re fortunate at Culham that we have many engineering professionals who are more than willing to help pass their knowledge on to the younger generation. There is access to all the latest kit, whether that be mechanical or electrical equipment, as well as welding, robotics, CAD software, 3D printing, or vacuum systems technologies. What is more, OAS apprenticeships are accredited by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Nuclear Institute.
And we don’t want to stop there. The OAS scheme comprises of three stages. Firstly, we have trialled processes and practices ahead of the second phase – the full-scale facility which will open next September.
The new building will allow an intake of to up to 160 apprentices per year, with additional capacity for later year apprentices and short course delivery. Only 20 of those will be UKAEA employees and the same number for STFC. The remaining 120 is for meeting the training needs of local companies.
A lot of our recruitment for OAS is done by word of mouth. We will go out and visit companies and tell them about apprenticeships at Culham. With European and UK science investment circa £1billion at Culham, we are uniquely placed to deliver high quality training, and I think employers see and value that.
The OAS employer group currently consists of Diamond Light Source, Abbott, Nuvia, SST Technology, Oxford Space Systems, Reaction Engines, Magnox, Oxford Instruments, Veolia, Element Six, Polar Technology, Catapult Satellite Systems, University of Oxford, Lentus Composites, and Valeo Foods. And along with the new centre opening next year, we will also have a new training provider. This is Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre, who will bring their wealth of experience to train OAS apprentices as part of Phase 2.
The third phase of the OAS development will see us expand to benefit wider industry and offer more technical skills that companies are lacking. We will particularly be focusing on the space industry, energy, robotics & AI and nuclear design.
I believe it’s truly an exciting time to be involved in this area of training. Having witnessed the decline of apprenticeships over the last couple of decades, it’s heartening to see the investment in them now and witness how much difference it makes to companies like us – and indeed to the individuals themselves.
David Martin is Chief Operating Officer, UK Atomic Energy Authority
Find out more about Oxfordshire Advanced Skills: www.oas.ukaea.uk