THE number of engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships in England rose from 55,000 in 2010/11 to 77,000 last year, according to Government figures.
With National Apprenticeship Week coming up next month, and a new apprenticeship levy being introduced in April, there is a renewed focus on maintaining this growth.
Indeed, since the financial crash of 2008, there seems to be a growing recognition that widespread training in technical skills - as is done in Germany - is essential to strengthening the economy.
The national increase in engineering apprenticeships is reflected locally. One training organisation to see a growth in new starters is Derwent Training Association (DTA) in Malton.
“We had 25 new starts in 2010,” says general manager John Brockett. “This year we had 60. That’s not us though - the employers create the vacancies. In this region we’ve got lots of small- and mid-size businesses, all doing different things.”
Based in a modern building on the York Road industrial estate on the outskirts of Malton, DTA teaches mechanical, electrical, design and manufacture skills to apprentices aged 16 and over. The building is full of industry-level equipment for everything from welding to electronics.
Showing us round, John indicates a large console. It is a hydraulics test bench, bought with the help of a £12,500 grant from Ryedale District Council. “Employers said, ‘we want you to teach the real stuff’,” says John, adding that the bench is perhaps unique within 100 miles.
John has been here for three years, after 40 years in manufacturing and engineering.
He was an apprentice himself when he started out. He says that companies are beginning to look at school leavers they can train up ahead of 22-year-old graduate engineers, citing high loyalty and staff retention rates among apprentices - although he adds he’s not trying to put anyone off doing a degree in engineering.
Indeed, some of the apprentices here will go on to be put through a BEng by their employers.
One of the apprentices at DTA is Sam Magowan, 19, a first year electrical engineer doing a Higher level apprenticeship, following A-levels in maths and physics at Norton College.
Like all the apprentices here she is employed by a firm, in her case Dale Power Solutions in Scarborough. The apprentices do four days a week at their companies, with one day at DTA.
“I’m really enjoying it and I really like the work side as well. It’s very different to anything I’d ever done before. It’s great, I like it a lot,” she says. Her work has sponsored her to do a degree after she graduates from this, on the same day-release basis.
“I get my funding paid for and a wage at the same time, so it’s win-win,” she adds.
Sam says that apprentices at Dale are rotated through departments, starting with the factory floor, then product testing, then design, which she says she’s looking forward to the most.
Did she consider a more academic route? “I had interest from universities. It’s just that as far as doing exams and stuff like that, I found sixth form very stressful. I found out about this and it means you get the qualifications, and the relevant experience, and I could stay in the area, and I got a wage at the same time so it all just seemed to fit perfectly.”
Other Higher apprentices are Amanda Offa-Jones, Holly Barratt and Christopher Bunce, who are at Sylatech, Dale and Dale respectively. They cite a slight boredom with academia and a desire to be more employable as reasons to do an apprenticeship.
“It’s a lot more hands-on than the university route,” says Holly. “I think you get more useful experience doing it this way.”
Founded in 1988 by industry bodies, DTA has maintained a not-for-profit position, opting to continuously reinvest in equipment, training and technology. They have a maximum class size of eight, and due to the adaptable nature of apprenticeships, some last four years, some three.
Another apprentice is Luke Holman, 16. Originally from Queensland in Australia, he went to Driffield School. “I’m fresh out of school,” he said. “I wanted to get into an apprenticeship straight away. I didn’t really fancy college, it wasn’t for me.” He was offered an apprenticeship at AB Graphics in Bridlington, and is down for the four-year apprenticeship.
Jordan Layne is a second year apprentice with Portakabin. “It’s been going fantastically, can’t pick any faults whatsoever,” he said. “I’ve always been a more practical person, I didn’t think going to university or college would be for me. I wanted to be hands-on and make things. At the moment I’m doing the Brathay challenge, you engage with young people and do community projects.”
In April, the way the government funds apprenticeships in England will change. A new levy will require all employers with a pay bill more than £3m each year to invest in apprenticeships.
Once companies have declared the levy to HMRC, they will be able to access funding for apprenticeships through a new apprenticeship service account.
Apprenticeships are for everyone. Across the half a million apprenticeship starts last year, 53 per cent were women. But in the engineering sector, John says the gender balance is mostly skewed towards males. It’s something they are trying to improve. “Girls do well in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects up to GCSE. As a country, though, we have the lowest number of professional female engineers in western Europe. I think it’s running about about 13 per cent which is appalling when you think about it.”
Numbers of apprenticeships crept steadily upwards during the New Labour years, then really took off when the coalition came to power - though this increase was largely powered by the over-25s.
In an age of student tuition fees and sky-high housing costs, there are signs that many young people are starting to eschew university - perhaps put off by the thought of accruing an average of £44,000 of debt for something that their parents’ generation got for free.
Indeed, last week it was reported that, at the January deadline, there has been a five per cent drop in UK admissions for courses starting this September.
Conversely, in 2015/16, according to the Government, there were 509,400 apprenticeship starts in England - 9,500 more than the previous year.
National Apprenticeship Week will take place from March 6-10. To coincide with this, DTA is holding an open evening on Tuesday, March 7, from 4pm onwards at their York Road premises. This will be an opportunity to talk to employers, look round the training centre and chat with DTA staff and current apprentices.