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 We won’t get them by perpetuating the myth that the apprenticeship is a second-grade education from an outdated institution.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!



Tell me again how we don’t make anything in the UK anymore

YT Icon Here at Industry.Co.UK, we are – of course – staunch supporters of UK manufacturing. Nothing gets our goat more than hearing that tired old cliché that "We don’t make anything in the UK anymore." As even a cursory glance through the news from Northern Manufacturing exhibitors on this blog will attest, nothing could be further from the truth. But a recent news item from Dave Tudor – the highly respected editor of PES Magazine – really puts some substance behind that assertion, with some facts and figures that even we found surprising. Read on, and prepare to feel proud to be British!


A recent visit to tooling manufacturer Guhring in Castle Bromwich revealed two things: firstly that the company’s new £2 million PCD/CBN facility was very much up and running and working well (see page 38 in the September issue); and secondly that I had missed perhaps one of the most significant pieces of TV broadcasting in recent times.

I am of course referring to the final Top Gear episode in the last series. Guhring has always been strong in the automotive sector and when I met with managing director Mike Dinsdale and UK sales manager Dave Hudson, we spent about 15 minutes talking about the show. I actually felt guilty for missing it. No matter though – YouTube provided some salvation.

The programme was significant because the last 15 minutes or so focused on the UK automotive sector and whilst it’s easy to linger on all the manufacturing we’ve lost over the years, a far better approach is to marvel and wonder at the stuff we still produce within this humble island of ours. This is what the team on Top Gear did – and they did it brilliantly – it was utterly compelling viewing. For anyone languishing in the ‘we don’t make anything here in the UK’ camp, I think you should read on.

"Today a new car rolls off a production line somewhere in Britain every 20 seconds," Jeremy Clarkson proudly announced. "Honda has a factory in Swindon manufacturing its Civic, Jazz and CrV models that employs 2,700 people; Toyota makes cars in Derbyshire which are then exported to Japan; last year, Nissan’s plant in the North East made more cars than the whole of the Italian motor industry put together."

Richard Hammond was equally impressed: "Last year one in three Fords sold globally had an engine made in either Wales or Essex; for five out of the last seven years, Aston Martin has been voted ‘the coolest brand in the world.

The UK has always been strong in autosport/motorsport circles, but did you know just HOW strong? Well, there are 11 F1 teams in the world and eight are based in Britain. "Seven can be seen from a certain hill in Oxfordshire," Mr Clarkson enthused.

And of course every success is underpinned by a prolific supply chain. Mr Clarkson seemed genuinely staggered as he divulged that practically all Indie Cars, every Dakar Rally winner since 2009, 35 of the 56 starters at this year’s Le Mans (including the winner), the Marussia F1 car and the Pagani Huayra, all use gearboxes manufactured at Xtrac’s factory in Berkshire.

The real pinnacle of the show however was towards the end when all companies that made motorised vehicles in the UK were asked to make their way to a ‘gathering’ in London. Aside from the companies previously mentioned (the F1 cars roaring through Milton Keynes were amazing), I defy anyone not feel unashamedly patriotic as The Mall in London filled to breaking point with UK manufactured vehicles: JLR, Triumph Motorcycles, JCB, Morgan, McLaren, Norton, Dennis – to name but a few, not to mention hordes of ice cream vans, hurses, lawn mowers, buses and tractors.

The sheer number of vehicles was eclipsed only by the truly jaw dropping diversity of what we do make here in the UK: "There’s more than I thought," chimed Richard Hammond. "This feels a bit special," Jeremy Clarkson added.

If you haven’t seen the program yet, you must. If you have seen it, watch it again. Head on over to YouTube and feel proud.

You can read the latest edition of Production Engineering Solutions online here