A week that should remind us that apprenticeships are for all

Features editor

While apprenticeships seem to be doing well across the UK, it’s important that the engineering sector doesn’t become complacent

It’s National Apprenticeship Week in the UK, although it seems to have been more low-key than in previous years. Aimed at ‘increasing awareness, understanding and demand for apprentices’, the week has included apprenticeship fairs, networking events and awards ceremonies (congratulations to Georgina Oag, on an advanced engineering apprenticeship at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, who has won Engineering Apprentice of the Year accolades from both Warwickshire College and  Coventry Freeman’s Guild), but there doesn’t seem to have been quite as much activity as in previous years.

Double apprenticeship award winner Georgina Oag at the MTC

This might be because apprenticeships are currently in quite a good state in the UK. The major manufacturing and engineering companies all offer apprenticeship schemes which are routinely oversubscribed (it’s not unusual for us to hear of 60 applicants or more for every place) and nobody in the sector seems to doubt the value of apprenticeships: it’s regarded seemingly by all as just as valid a way for young people to start their career in engineering as the university route. Many apprenticeships include university content, and come with an option to take a degree-level quaification attached.

’Apprenticeship might be a venerable concept, but it is absolutely key to the future.

The picture isn’t universally rosy, of course. For example, a satellite communications company based in a well-off town in the south of England has difficulty recruiting apprentices from its local region; as a result, most of its apprentices come from elsewhere in the country and need to be found accommodation. And although the Jaguar Land Rovers, Rolls Royces and BAE Systems of this country can of course operate apprenticeship schemes with no difficulty, the situation is not the same for smaller and medium-sized companies (who, let’s not forget, make up the majority of the engineering and manufacturing sectors in the UK) who may find it not so easy to allocate resources and form connections with education institutions to run such programmes. Government help is available for SMEs – companies up to 1000 employees can claim £1500 per apprentice between 16 and 24, up to a total of 10 – but financially-pressed companies must still find it difficult. According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, only 18 per cent of manufacturing companies offer formal apprenticeships, although this is still ahead of all companies, for which the proportion is 13 per cent.

There’s also the simple matter of demographics. As we’re constantly told, the average age of engineers is going up, and the number of experienced engineers retiring is increasing every year. The whole essence of apprenticeships is that experienced practitioners pass on their skills to the upcoming generation, so we have to be aware that those older employees are a resource to be nurtured, as they’re just as vital as the young entrants.

So it’s possibly the case that the most important targets for National Apprenticeship Week are employers (particularly smaller ones), parents and teachers. The messages that apprenticeship is in no way a second-rate option, that it’s suitable for people of any and all backgrounds, and that it depends on experienced staff being available to take on the role of mentor, need to keep being pressed. Apprenticeship might be a venerable concept, but it is absolutely key to the future.