Saturday Essay: Making Apprenticeships Work For Young People And Business Is Key To Our Industrial FutureAhead of National Apprenticeship Week, Paul Rose – Director at Tadcaster-based engineering firm Tadweld – discusses the skills gap, and how businesses could make apprenticeships more attractive for potential recruits.
Next week is National Apprenticeship Week (8 – 14 February), and this year’s ‘Build the Future’ theme focuses on how businesses can train apprentices to fill emerging gaps in the workforce, retain these apprentices to fill full time roles and deliver long-term career opportunities.
Delivering apprenticeships and providing training and employment opportunities for young people is a particular passion point of mine and these focuses really do strike at the heart of the issue, especially in manufacturing.
The skills gap in many sectors is now reaching crunch-time and in the current climate it’s more important than ever for businesses to invest wisely in their future, but there is also a significant responsibility for the government to support these efforts.
I started my career as a Commercial Trainee at Shepherd Construction, where I studied and passed an Ordinary National Certificate (ONC) in business studies on day release from work and subsequently went on to study for an HNC. For me, taking the apprenticeship route rather than going to university is one of the best decisions I have ever made and it kickstarted a rewarding and successful career as an entrepreneur. In many sectors you learn by doing and a classroom is no substitute to hand-on real-life experience.
During my time at Rixonway Kitchens, we ran a hugely successful apprenticeship programme and were the second largest employer in Kirklees. As a result, I was appointed Apprenticeship Ambassador at Kirklees Council, a role which included advising smaller companies in the area on how to take on apprenticeships and encouraging organisations to offer hands-on experience with clear progression opportunities, something which is key to apprentices gaining value from their role.
According to UK Parliament figures, 2018/19 saw 60,000 engineering apprenticeships begin in England, but the number of new apprentices has been in constant flux, and this figure is the second lowest in almost a decade.
With the rise of zero-hour contracts and students leaving Universities with huge debt, apprenticeships provide a unique opportunity to provide young people with a direct route into industry, but the way we attract, train and retain talent could be better, and many businesses also struggle with securing funding.
The Apprenticeship Levy – which sees the government pay a proportion of the cost of apprenticeships – goes some of the way to supporting businesses taking on apprenticeships, but this doesn’t address the issues of making apprenticeships a more attractive option.
Closing the skills gap
Tadweld is a specialist engineering and fabrication business with a team of more than 20, most of whom have invariably learnt on the job and joined the industry through a traditional route, including our Operations Director Chris Joy, who started at Tadweld as a sheet metal worker 25 years ago following an apprenticeship. His experience and knowledge is vital to what we do every day, but we want to see more people like Chris rise through the ranks.
The most important thing that apprenticeships provide for businesses like Tadweld is a healthy pipeline of new engineers. There is a looming crisis for UK-based engineering firms, with figures suggesting there isn’t the talent pool in place to recruit new team members when experienced staff retire. Part of this starts in education, where schools could promote more STEM subjects and the benefits and career opportunities these could lead to, as well as apprenticeships as an option to school leavers.
At Tadweld, we’re not providing off-the-shelf solutions for our clients. Every single job is bespoke, so there is not only a huge scope to learn, but also immeasurable value in experienced staff. Ultimately, the key ingredient to replacing experienced staff is giving quality recruits time to grow and learn. As every job is unique, each one provides a learning experience, and beyond on-the-job training we are eager to support our staff to pursue qualification or specialist in areas that they excel.
Our industry shifts regularly, the biggest in recent years has been computer aided design (CAD), which is gradually phasing out technical drawing. We absolutely can and do train our engineers in CAD, but an advantage of the younger generation is life-long exposure to technology, meaning that the intuitive systems are second nature to them.
Attracting the right candidates
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There can be little doubt that aspects of the engineering and manufacturing sector have a reputational problem. People sometimes describe it as ‘metal bashing’ and there is a preconception that the industry isn’t glamorous, but not only are our engineers highly-skilled, but the sector provides long-term employment opportunities and training.
We’re problem solvers. We provide bespoke solutions to highly specialised specifications that help our clients improve their processes. Through training and experience, our team of engineers are experts in what they do, and yet it’s often a career path overlooked by aspirational young people.
In our industry a good work-ethic is must, but so is critical thinking. Physical work like ours is also, crucially, mental work. Unfortunately, many young people who can think outside the box are filtered into the university system without being properly aware of the alternatives. The result is that fledgling UK success stories like ours are not able to access a talent pool that is equipped to support it.
I love Yorkshire and suspect this is something I have in common with the vast majority of people reading this. But every area has its constraints. It isn’t a coincidence that firms like Tadweld are mostly based away from the larger conurbations where premises are cheaper, but this does limit the pool of prospective new recruits.
At Tadweld, we recognise the importance of investing in apprentices with competitive salaries, but many businesses just aren’t able to, and the cost of a daily commute by car or public transport throughout can add up on a typical apprenticeship wage.
More government support could help candidates could make their apprenticeship decision based on their best training options, rather than just on what they can afford.
Getting an apprenticeship is a significant investment in your future, which is why it’s important to stress that a life-long skill is more valuable even if entry-level wages are better at Tesco.
What can businesses do?
At Tadweld, we pay good wages that reflect the quality of our workforce, but this is not commonplace across the sector, which is a big part of the problem. Many argue that if apprentice wages are too low to attract enough high-quality candidates then the market is determining that companies need to pay more, and to some extent this is true.
A “minimum” wage is just that – the minimum. It is not the recommended wage and companies need to establish what the fair rate for apprentices in their sector or location. Wages should not become a race to the bottom, and fair, competitive pay improves retention levels and reduces productivity dips associated with onboarding new staff.
But companies still need to consider the benefit-cost ratio when taking on new apprentices. During the lengthy induction and training period, the cost of the apprenticeship is borne by the company themselves until that apprentice becomes productive.
Apprenticeships – when done right – are not years of menial tasks, they are robust, real life preparations that can kick start a career.
What can the government do?
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A system that nurtures good apprenticeships is in the interests of both businesses and the government. The key thing is working with businesses to ensure that apprentices get enough money to live on and that businesses aren’t asked to contribute more than is viable. This could be a rent or commuting subsidy to ensure candidates are paired with the businesses right for their training rather simply those closest to their house.
It needs to be attractive to prospective candidates and worthwhile for businesses in terms of output. Businesses like Tadweld are thrilled to nurture talent, and there is nothing more satisfying than seeing an apprentice flourish in a productive and effective member of the team, but what we provide is a training ground, much like a university – unfortunately, we don’t get anything like the support we need to take on as many as we would like.
What happens next?
Prospective apprentices don’t have enough incentives and SMEs don’t have enough support. Meaningful policies and bold ideas are sorely needed to provide a shot in the arm for next-generation recruitment. We all want to see a thriving engineering sector in the UK providing quality jobs and career alternatives to young people in Yorkshire and beyond, but young people shouldn’t be made to choose between a home of their own and the cost of commuting.
Businesses are happy to pay their way and provide the skills young people need to succeed, but to prevent this month’s National Apprenticeship Week from becoming a talking shop what we need most is a commitment for government and industry to work together to develop the workforce of the future.
Paul Rose is a Yorkshire entrepreneur and a former winner of EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Having started his career as a Commercial Trainee at Shepherd Construction he has a wealth of experience in growing privately owned businesses across the manufacturing and engineering sector. He was previously chief executive of Dewsbury-based Rixonway Kitchens growing the business to a turnover of c£40m and employing over 450 people. He joined the Tadweld board as a shareholder investor and Chairman in 2017.