Misconception of apprenticeships is ‘still one of scruffy looking men in dirty boiler suits’

Andy Donnell discusses the challenge of attracting apprentices to the mechanical and electrical (M&E) engineering sector in the UK.

When I left school (a few years ago now) I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to do a construction apprenticeship.

More Features 

Rules of engagement

Five ways to get the most out of your talent all year

Crisis training removes the element of surprise

Back then apprenticeships were the ‘done’ thing and the majority of my friends followed in similar paths. I could tell a few stories of those days, but I fear they would only fuel the issues I go on to discuss!  But things have changed and there’s no doubt that experience gave me the core skills I needed to go on and build a successful business in later life.

In the last 20 years there has undoubtedly been a shift towards other educational channels such as university. This has resulted in a massive skills shortage in particular sectors such as ours.

Research by the BESA has revealed that demand will rise still further over the next four years putting even further pressure on industries already struggling to resource their business.

These findings are worrying, but also disappointing because people are missing out on great opportunities to earn while they learn and build successful careers. It’s a shame so many people are missing out on an experience like our first ever apprentice Kevin Broad. When I asked him for a summary of his experience he said:

“I first started at Westway Services when I was 16, slightly clueless, but ready to get stuck in and learn. 9 years later and I have been promoted several times and am now a Supervisor. This opportunity has been a positive journey for me and one I have been very grateful to have. Next stop for me is to make my way up to senior management!”

Schools gear their students towards sixth form and university facilities with other options often being left out the equation. From our experience we have seen that people lack the understanding of what apprenticeships have to offer and the different types available to them.

In the last few years Westway Services, along with many other companies, has struggled to attract young apprentices on to our schemes. Since we increased the number of apprenticeships on our scheme in 2013 we have been unable to fill all the available opportunities for any single year.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in apprenticeships and how to decrease the skills gap. The Government is looking to generate statutory funds to support apprentice training and help this once vibrant career path become mainstream again.

As part of measures announced in the 2015 Autumn Statement, all employers in England, Scotland and Wales with a wage bill of more than £3m will pay into the Apprenticeship Levy. It is vital at this point that the underlying problems are identified in order to co-ordinate the appropriate solutions to tackle this ever increasing issue.

One of the key issues surrounding apprenticeships is perception. This works on two levels. Firstly, the commercial mechanical and engineering sector has done a poor job of marketing itself. 

I believe the common perception is still one of scruffy looking men in dirty boiler suits. Contrast this image to that presented by the British Army in their engineering recruitment advertising and you can see we have some way to go. 

The second issue is directly related to apprenticeships themselves. There seems to be a negative stereotype in the UK based on a belief that apprenticeships are only undertaken by those unable to go university. 

There is also a belief that your earning power will be lessened. Nothing could be further from the truth. Following completion of their training, which takes about four years, our senior engineers are earning up to £45K basic with the opportunity for significant overtime.  

Government figures estimate an extra £150K can be earned over a lifetime by someone who trains up to Level 4 in their apprentice qualification without incurring the debt University brings. We need to learn from places such as Germany and America who have managed to create a very positive attitude towards apprenticeships.

As much as schools encourage children to attend university rather than explore other avenues, companies such as ours are guilty of not actively getting involved in promoting our available opportunities.

Recently, Westway has been in conversation with local schools to advise a plan designed to promote apprenticeships, a project for which we have high hopes.  Increasing the number of apprentices in the UK is more than just reducing the skills gap. 

It is about giving young people a chance to choose what educational platform will give them the most successful path in life and giving them the right information to make informed choices about their future.

With such a lack of understanding and so many misconceptions I believe the time might be right to look at a total ‘rebrand’ of the apprenticeship system in order raise their profile and reposition them alongside alterative forms of further education. This repositioning cannot be done in isolation. 

It will take the collaboration of schools and colleges, trade associations, Government and the M&E engineering sector.  So while I don’t believe for one minute it will be easy, I struggle to see how the current educational set up will ever enable us to close the increasingly wide deficit of skilled engineers.

Andy Donnell, Managing Director of Westway Services.


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *