Apprenticeships are the future, not the past

Normally we blog here about the latest products and services to be found at the Southern and Northern Manufacturing shows. But for this post, in recognition of the fact that this week is National Apprenticeship Week, I’d like to offer a few personal words on the venerable and noble institution of apprenticeships.

Document For decades we have been told that to achieve success in life, you must have a degree. For years we have been told that “We don’t make things in the UK anymore” and that there is now no need for the practical engineering skills acquired by generations of apprentices. That will, no doubt, come as a surprise to the thousands of successful engineering businesses operating in the UK today. But faced with such nonsense from the media and some quarters of the teaching profession, it’s little wonder that so many youngsters are scared into playing it safe by going to university and getting a degree – any degree. What increasing numbers are discovering, to their cost and ultimately to ours, is that a degree no longer guarantees employment.

The misalignment of skill set to workplace in modern Britain is a massive damper on the engineering sector. One of the biggest challenges facing firms these days is trying to find skilled operators; people who know how to cut metal, how to programme CAM machinery and how to turn drawings into finished products. Ironically, it’s those supposedly redundant apprentice-trained toolmakers who are now enjoying the greatest success as their skills have become more sought after and valued. We need more of them. We won’t get them by perpetuating the myth that the apprenticeship is a second-grade education from an outdated institution.

nut bolt Just think about it for a second: Civilisation was built over thousands of years, not by degree graduates, but by time-served apprentices; people who had learned their trade by observing, following and doing. The world’s great buildings, priceless works of art, the great advances in engineering, aviation and transportation, even newspapers and the books in our libraries that carry knowledge from one generation to the next. All were made by ex-apprentices. Given the pivotal role that apprenticeships have played in the ascent of human civilisation, why on Earth should they be valued any less highly than degree courses? Yes of course we still need graduate engineers to lead and inspire. But in just the same way that newly commissioned officers are reliant on the guidance of the experienced NCOs under them, they need to be backed up by a solid core of well-trained and experienced engineering workers, well-versed in the skill of translating theory into practical reality. This is the role that the time-served apprentice fulfils – the absolutely vital link that keeps the whole machine of industry turning.

Thankfully, things are changing as National Apprenticeship Week and the many organisations up and down the land, such as STEGTA, are proving. Yet this modern generation of apprentices are still facing prejudice, still facing the dismissive snorts of their degree-educated peers and the arrogant put-downs of people who don’t know anything at all about either engineering or apprenticeships but yet feel qualified to look down their noses. Degrees have their place, of course, but real apprenticeships are no less valuable. This week the government announced that the term “Apprenticeship” is to be given the same protected status as “Degree”, which will hopefully draw a line in the sand and ensure that today’s apprenticeships meet the standards required of a high-quality vocational training scheme, equipping youngsters well and providing them with the launch pad for a rewarding engineering career.

For all firms providing apprenticeship schemes, we say “Bravo!” and for youngsters considering joining them, we say “Go for it!” By becoming an apprentice, you’re becoming part of a tradition that stretches back not just decades, but millennia. More importantly, you’re part of the future.

And yes, I was an engineering apprentice!

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