Schools must promote vocational courses and apprenticeships in engineering as well as the usual academic options, says Paul Davies

The UK has seen welcome growth and investment in apprenticeships with more than 450,000 new people signed up in 2010-11, up 63.5 per cent from the previous year.

With the demand for apprenticeships increasing from employers, there needs to be a steady flow of candidates. This is where schools need to change their attitudes and ensure that apprenticeships are mentioned as a viable alternative to university.

September 2012 will see major tuition fee rises applied by the country’s universities, which will likely lead to many potential undergraduates, and future engineers, considering alternatives to a degree.

A recent Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) event, which brought together representatives from the world of academia, training and business, heard from apprentices who revealed that university was encouraged as the best option for a student’s future by their schools. If they were not going to university, they were given little or no help regarding their future options.

“Apprenticeships equip young people with the practical and technical skills valued by employers

The new National Careers Service, launched at the beginning of April, has been welcomed by the IET. It is designed to give people better advice on getting a new job or changing careers altogether. However, with more than 2.5 million people out of work and the unemployment rate rising, the new service will likely have its work cut out.

It is essential that it provides information on vocational courses and apprenticeships as well as the more academic routes.

Apprenticeships equip young people with the key practical and technical skills that are valued by employers. Given the tough economic situation being faced by the engineering and technology sectors, apprenticeships really are a viable alternative to a traditional academic pathway.

At the IET we are committed to helping young engineers and technicians develop their careers and work towards professional registration, whether they are doing degrees or apprenticeships.

Working closely with industry and colleges, we accredit or approve and support a number of apprentice schemes. This means that we examine the content and depth of the qualifications delivered during the apprenticeship. We also look at the quality of the delivery; in other words, the support and work experience given to apprentices during the scheme that will lead to them qualifying as registered engineering technicians or ICT technicians.

Rebalancing the UK’s economy will require qualified, skilled engineers and technicians at all levels. Properly accredited and approved apprenticeship schemes provide a high-quality alternative to traditional academic routes for the country’s future workforce.

Maybe the most obvious benefit of apprenticeships is the reality that apprenticeships can provide participants with the knowledge and skills for an engineering career without having to embark on a university course, which could leave many saddled with debt and an uncertain future. The IET’s most recent skills survey showed that 38 per cent of employers said they expected to employ more apprentices over the next five years. Industry values the combination of work-and knowledge-based learning that apprenticeships can deliver. They produce technicians and engineers with a wide range of experience, both technical and business.

Properly accredited apprenticeship schemes offer apprentices many benefits, including streamlined engineering technician application processes, which will equip them with an internationally recognised engineering qualification.

It is widely recognised that the general public has a very poor perception of engineering and in particular industry. There are many things that the government, colleges, employers and the profession can do to help change this. One is to ensure that engineering is not seen as a dead end - starting an apprenticeship should be seen as the first step into a exciting world with a myriad of opportunities, with clear progression routes from apprentice through to chartered engineer.

We need to promote the fact that apprenticeships provide one route to professional qualifications and university. For example, engineering apprenticeships are being developed that can take a learner up to level six (bachelors level) that include a BEng degree and IEng registration.

While it is concerning that, according to recent reports, some apprenticeship providers have chosen to manipulate the funding situation for their own means, this must not detract from the value of apprenticeships to young people and the wider economy.

The government must not play a ‘numbers game’ but must seek to produce the fully qualified technicians that the UK so desperately needs for the future.

Paul Davies, Head of policy, Institution of Engineering and Technology