Reaching for the stars

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Written by Seun Robert-Edomi on 1 August 2012 in Interviews
Interviews

In our series on L&D practitioners who scooped prizes at TJ's 2011 Awards, Seun Robert-Edomi talks to Mott MacDonald, winner of the best apprenticeship programme of the year

In organisation that helped to create an apprenticeship programme with a focus on consultancy was recognised at last year's TJ Awards.

Engineering and development consultancy Mott MacDonald collected the prize for best apprenticeship programme of the year in November, emerging victorious over the likes of Santander UK and the London Borough of Hillingdon.

The company was congratulated for implementing an "impressive" engineering technician apprenticeship programme - an Edexcel BTEC Level 3 NVQ in Construction and the Built Environment (the equivalent of an A level) - that established a new route into engineering for young people without degrees.

Category judge Lee Davies, deputy chief executive of the Institute for Learning, said: "This application impressed from the start, particularly in the way it relates the needs of the organisation to the wider framework for engineering education and training and the connection it makes with key government priorities, most notably providing non-graduate entry routes into the profession."

Research carried out by Mott MacDonald established that some of their graduate engineers were carrying out work more suitable for engineering technicians - employees without degrees. This created morale issues among them and the possibility that unhappiness with the situation may cause them to leave.

The company wanted to avoid losing any of its graduate employees but knew that attempting to increase the engineering technician workforce would throw up many challenges.

The Engineering Council's increasing requirement for Masters-level qualifications and a good supply of graduates had created a situation in which nearly 95 per cent of young engineers were graduates and there were few further education courses available for engineering technicians.  

In 2010, Mott MacDonald's L&D team began to look into introducing an engineering technician apprenticeship programme. The desired outcomes of such a programme for the company were:

  • address the shortage of engineering technicians
  • develop a new group of engineering technician staff
  • provide an alternative to A levels/degrees for young engineers
  • create competitive advantage by demonstrating commitment to the growth of the national skills base.

The firm evaluated other apprenticeship schemes but found that no existing framework matched what it was looking to establish. Further investigation also showed that, while other engineering consultancies were interested in apprenticeships, there wasn't a single one large enough to provide a class for a further education college.

Information gathered from these projects allowed the business to partner with its client Transport for London in creating an engineering technician apprenticeship programme that would be mutually beneficial, as TfL also had the same needs.

The programme included classroom teaching combined with practical training. Apprentices spend one day a week in the classroom and the rest of the week putting theory into practice on engineering projects for their employers. This provides them with the practical experience they need to become effective engineering technicians.

Mott MacDonald's scheme has helped provide education and training for young people, in addition to increasing the utilisation of skills. It has also provided many opportunities for young adults throughout London, and in the country as a whole.

Davies praised the scheme and said there was good potential for its expansion.

"The challenge - developing an engineering technician apprenticeship programme alongside a traditional graduate engineering route - is well described and the aims of the programme are rooted in a strong research base," he said.

"The collaborative approach and employer/further education partnership has many strengths, and the challenge of working together to deliver a high quality training programme is well described. The potential for expansion is well set out."

Claire Ritchie, L&D manager at Mott MacDonald, said that winning the award as well as being commended in two other categories was the "icing on the cake".

She said: "Putting our programmes under scrutiny for awards such as these is a useful process in itself because it adds to the rigour of our thinking and means we focus on business outcomes.

"To have won in this category and been commended in the other two of the three that we entered is just the icing on the cake."

Ritchie's view was backed by Zoe Carter-Owen, graduate development and apprentice manager at the consultancy firm. She revealed that 100 apprentices will be taking part in the programme across the UK from next month.

"So much hard work has gone into this programme, so to end up winning after all of the effort we' ve put in is truly fantastic," she added.

"We weren't sure what to think on the day of the awards as we were up against teams and organisations with enormous apprenticeship programmes and these all run extremely well. Our programme had fewer than ten apprentices so I didn't really see how we could compete, but we did and we'll now be having more than 100 apprentices taking part in the programme from September."

Carter-Owen believes that creating a formal qualification is what helped to make their application a winner: "We came together with TfL to achieve a common goal - which I believe is what helped to make us the winner of this category.

"So many challenges were overcome along the way and a formal qualification has now been set up for apprentices to take. We still work closely with our competitors on a range of other apprenticeship projects."

She told TJ that the programme was innovative because, before it was introduced, the development of engineering technicians had been suffering for nearly 20 years.

"The new apprenticeship programme provides a genuine alternative to the traditional degree route to professional engineering qualification and, in the long term, may prove even more important than increasing the engineering graduate population.

"It is also the only apprenticeship that is focused on consultancies. It doesn't just give apprentices their NVQs, it means they come out as professional and qualified engineering technicians - this is increasingly important as skills training has been lacking in the sector for the best part of two decades."

Sharing knowledge and best practice is becoming more and more important in today's economy - this was a key message from the consultancy firm.

"Anything is achievable if you put your heads together," Carter-Owen said. "The higher technical qualification provided by this apprenticeship programme is a differentiator for the UK engineering sector and could be used by other industries with a skills gap.

"A six-month delivery timetable for this groundbreaking programme shows what can be achieved when collaboration and trust between companies is fostered.

"The programme is a true example of an employer- and demand-led approach involving the public and private sectors working together for the good of industry and society."

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