Hardly a day goes by without at least one major UK company announcing details of a new apprenticeship scheme.
This week it was the turn of BMW, who are looking for around 200 new apprentices in 2015, both in car production and retailing, a third more than in 2014.
Not to be outdone, Aston Martin declared, as their most recent apprentice intake joined the company that “Apprentices are an investment in the future for Aston Martin”.
Why are these apprentice schemes significant? Quite simply, both of these companies, and hundreds if not thousands more like them have recognised that there is a growing skills shortage in the UK, particularly in the engineering and manufacturing fields, which is not being fulfilled by the existing education system. Why is this, when an ever-increasing number of youngsters are attending university? In truth, the sheer number of universities and degree courses now available has ensured that the possession of the once-exalted degree as an automatic route to well-paid and interesting employment is now almost dead in the water. Whilst possession of a decent degree from one of the so-called “Russell Group” of Universities such as Bristol, Cambridge and Nottingham is usually worthwhile, the sad fact is that most employers now see that a degree obtained from one of the multitude of lesser universities is of little or no value in demonstrating the worth of a potential candidate for employment. As an employer until recently, I have lost count of the number of candidates who applied for positions with our company who genuinely felt that their degree was a guarantee of success, yet were unfortunately able to demonstrate absolutely zero knowledge or even a basic understanding of the fundamentals of the type of career for which they were applying, then wondered why they were rejected. The truth is, sadly, they, and thousands like them, have little or nothing to offer their potential employers.
And yet, until recently, few alternatives to getting a degree were available to ambitious school-leavers, however enthusiastic or capable. Sure, there were a few “Apprenticeships” available, but these were generally of limited duration, often only 12 months, and contained minimal educational content, being seen by many of the employers who set them up as being sources of cheap labour, to be sent on their way at the end of their “time”. Contrast this with the traditional position with the traditional Apprenticeships of some decades ago, which fell by the wayside with the proliferation of second-rate “Universities”. Apprenticeships then were in the main of 3- or 4- year duration, highly structured, and aimed at assisting the apprentice to progress as far up the educational ladder as he or she was capable whilst giving them a thorough grounding in their chosen trade or profession – this latter being probably the thing most lacking in the typical university course. Now I must declare a vested interest here – I was one of those long-ago apprentices, indentured to that long-gone stalwart of the motor industry “the Austin”, latterly consumed into British Leyland, now itself long gone. Whilst it may not always have seemed like it to me at the time, that apprenticeship gave me a superb grounding in all of the basic aspects of engineering, as well as supporting my further education, and the lessons learned are still put to good use today. Contrast this with the average university leaver with an engineering degree today, who has little idea of the fundamentals of, for example, designing something so it can actually be made or serviced, as they have never carried out such tasks. Indeed, the success of such apprenticeships can be measured in the positions to which many of these apprentices have risen over the course of their careers.
Not before time, all of this is changing, fortunately, as more and more companies, in a wide range of disciplines and not just in engineering, see the benefit of being able to grow their own leaders and skilled staff of the future, fully conversant with all aspects of the business and backed with company sponsored higher education, increasingly to and even beyond degree level.
As the Skills Minister Nick Boles recently said: “Apprenticeships make total business sense while giving people the chance of a high-quality and respected route in to employment. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see firms like BMW leading the way in 2015 by committing to employ more apprentices. Through our reforms we have given employers like BMW the power to design top-quality apprenticeships that equip learners with the skills businesses need to grow and thrive.”
The great thing about apprenticeships in their reincarnated form is that they are rarely elitist, and whilst progression to study for a degree is often possible, more hands-on candidates are also catered for, and given opportunities to progress. An interesting example of this can be found at my local heritage railway, the Watercress Line, which has for some years been recruiting apprentices to fill the looming void as the current highly-experienced staff approach retirement. Following good progress through their apprenticeships, two of the Lines final-year apprentices have recently single-handedly undertaken a high-profile restoration of the famous steam locomotive “Sir Winston Churchill” which will play a big part in the commemoration events surrounding the anniversary of this great statesman’s death and funeral. Watch out for a special programme featuring this restoration on TV at the end of January.
So well done, BMW, Aston Martin and all the others who are investing in the future, your investments will surely be repaid a thousandfold. If you are a school-leaver considering your options, go on, consider an apprenticeship: I can almost guarantee that you won’t regret it…….and you won’t (hopefully!) end your apprenticeship with a huge Student Loan to be repaid either!