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The Power of Manufacturing

A degree of experience: what apprenticeships offer our brightest young people

Four high-flying apprentices reveal how they had to defy school pressure pushing them towards university

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

We all know that university places are over-subscribed. We also know that getting a degree is expensive, with tuition fees still a controversial topic. At first glance, it seems like an odd situation. Surely with the introduction of fees, fewer teenagers would apply? Well, you’d have thought so — and initially, that did happen. In 2012, when the new fees system came in, applications slumped by 40,000. But this year the number of applicants for full-time university courses hit a record high. Why? Well, what are the other options? For most school leavers, university is the automatic next step — not just in their minds, but also in those of their parents and teachers. Apprenticeships are something that most teenagers simply don’t think about.

This, however, is all set to change. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has decided to radically shake up apprenticeships with the idea that they should be held in the same esteem as a degree. Giving the term ‘apprentice’ legal protection will, they hope, strengthen their reputation and encourage people to see them as equal to an academic degree. The government has also committed to creating three million apprenticeships in the next five years. Of course, these won’t all be in industry or manufacturing — 76 different schemes are being redesigned, and public bodies including schools, hospitals, prisons and police forces will have apprentice targets.

Apprenticeships are having something of a fashion moment, then. But what does being an apprentice really involve — and how can you become one? We asked four young people with experience of various apprenticeship schemes, and they all had very different stories to tell.

Russell Fox, now 18, left school at 16 for an apprenticeship with Eldon Tool and Engineering in Sheffield. A classic-car enthusiast, he wanted to do something more ‘hands on’ than a classroom-based education could prepare him for, but wasn’t sure what. When he found out that Eldon Tools — a company he knew about through his experience of working on cars — had apprenticeship opportunities, he applied and was accepted. Two years later he’s about to start his Level 3 apprenticeship and after that he plans to go on to higher education.

Oliver Cowley-Topping found a slightly different way in. After his A-levels he was accepted on to the pilot of the Employer Ownership scheme, a programme funded partly by government and partly by industry and designed to help smaller companies take on apprentices. He now works for Magellan Aerospace, a Canadian aerospace systems and components manufacturer which supplies BAE. Now in the third year of his four-year apprenticeship, he hopes to go on to university, which he will be able to combine with his current work. But why choose an apprenticeship rather than university?

‘I really didn’t want to go to university, pay £9,000 a year for three years then come out of it and not have a job,’ he explains. Oliver learned about other options at an open evening, where the current trainees sounded so enthusiastic and the work so interesting that he knew it was what he wanted to do. He was encouraged by his father, who had himself served an apprenticeship to become an engineer. But when he outlined his plan to his teachers, they had no useful careers advice for him.

‘Because they didn’t know, they couldn’t help me, and they didn’t really try to either,’ he says.

Francesca McKenna had a similar experience. Both her father and her brother work at BAE so she knew about the company, but her teachers pushed her towards university. ‘Perhaps it’s because that’s what they did, and they think it’s just what you do,’ she says.

But she does believe that awareness is increasing. ‘A lot of my friends are now interested in apprenticeships, and when I speak to graduates quite a few of them say, “I wish I’d done what you did,” ’ says Francesca, who is BAE Systems’ Apprentice of the Year.

Her experience is borne out by the figures. She is in the fourth year of BAE’s project-management apprenticeship, which she combines with a part-time honours degree. When she started, she was one of only three on her course and one of 15 BAE ‘higher apprentices’. Four years on the company has taken on 15 project management apprentices this year, and 67 higher apprentices in total.

All the trainees agree that our education system is not designed to steer young people into apprenticeships. They say teachers automatically encourage their high-performing students to apply to university.

‘The way my school see apprenticeships is as an easy way out of education,’ says Russell. ‘I don’t think there is enough encouragement for pupils. My careers adviser didn’t actually know how apprenticeship schemes worked. The truth is that they are a fantastic opportunity to learn skills, achieve and then go on to higher education if you want. Schools aren’t pushing it enough as a career option. Following the apprentice framework is a hell of a good education. It’s a mixture of college and practical work and gives you a chance to show you are competent to work on the shop floor.’

This lack of encouragement from schools means that students must fend for themselves when researching options and applying for schemes. Francesca and Oliver were lucky because their families were able to help. But Alex Tomlinson had actually started an engineering degree at Warwick University before he left for his higher apprenticeship at Jaguar Land Rover. Now he has exactly the same honours degree he would have earned before, but with the added advantage of six years’ experience in his chosen industry.

‘Why I went to university was down to lack of knowledge,’ he explains. ‘As soon as the higher apprenticeships came about, I applied. They made total sense to me.’

The bonus of many higher apprenticeships is that they can include university degrees, often funded by the employer. This eliminates university debt and because the trainees’ careers have already kicked off, their studies can help their work and vice versa.

‘I use some of my workplace experience to help my studies, which is a real benefit,’ says Francesca.

A common perception is that apprenticeships — and jobs in industry — are more suited to men than women. This might have been true in the past, but things are changing. ‘There seems to be quite an even mix between genders now,’ says Francesca. ‘There are a lot more girls beginning apprenticeships, although craft apprenticeships are still very male-dominated. I think it’s a lack of role models, and we need to show girls that there are lots of opportunities and careers out there.’

If schools were in a position to explain all the options, and encourage more girls into apprenticeships, it might in fact be beneficial both for students and manufacturing.

As Russell says: ‘I don’t want this to sound sexist, but girls pay a lot more attention to detail and take so much pride in their work. I pay a lot of attention to detail, but I have seen women pay even more. I believe men and women working alongside each other in engineering can definitely create something better.’

Will the government’s initiative combat these problems? Raising awareness of what apprenticeships are available should be easy enough, but encouraging more girls into industry and making people see apprenticeships as a legitimate career route won’t be quite so simple. But if it succeeds, our industries, our students, our employers — and our nation — will all feel the benefit.

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