Growing scepticism over the value of academic qualifications for the modern industrial labour market has prompted a Kent engineering firm with a worldwide export market to invest more than Pounds 60,000 in hands-on training courses for teenaged school students.
Its initiative is reflected in a survey for the Business and Technology Education Council during the summer which found that most large and medium-sized companies believe their profits are being hit by a shortage of skilled young recruits and nearly half are ready to look abroad to fill their vacancies.
Weidmuller Ltd of Sheerness has a German mother company but needs look no further than local schools for prospective young engineers and, unlike the new generation of vocational courses being increasingly offered to post-14 students in schools and colleges, its evening course is factory, not classroom-based.
The 15 and 16-year-olds who sign up for the six-month, three-hours-a-week sessions, get their hands dirty from the first day when they beging to learn the basics of engineering in the firm's electronic components factory on the Isle of Sheppey.
The training scheme, now in its seventh year with the latest intake of 14 boys and one girl and which gets down to three hours of workplace discipline at "six o'clock sharp" on Wednesday evenings, has proved popular with students, parents and schools within the 20-mile catchment area. Each year one or two students are offered apprenticeships with the firm, which employs nearly 500 people in Sheerness and has an annual UK turnover of Pounds 80 million, and the firm's own course certificates are highly regarded by similar firms in the area.
Chris Burgess, Weidmuller's engineering manager, said: "We learned longer ago than seven years that the standard of young people coming into the company or applying for engineering apprenticeships, were leaving school with a lower level of technical education. We felt this was to do with the restructuring of the school curriculum and the closure of technical schools, which we still regret. We saw the engineering courses as a way of putting something back in that we felt was missing from schools."
Richard Barson, head of nearby Minster College, from where most of the course students are drawn, does not see it quite that way, but agrees that a shift away from "strictly skills-based courses" - such as engineering workshop theory and practice, which used to be taught as a GCSE - left firms such as Weidmuller with a problem.
"What they have wanted is the ready-made embryonic apprentices who would have all the craft skills; they obviously mourn the loss of these abilities. I would suggest that the range of skills of today's youngsters are of as high a quality, but have changed in emphasis."
Weidmuller's approach is to give the young men and women a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of the basics of engineering in a factory setting with close supervision from five instructors - members of staff working overtime to teach the course.
The students, who pay Pounds 25 for the course - with Pounds 12.50 expected on the first night - learn about milling, turning and drilling and the handskills required to make tools. Later they are taught the computerised applications of tool design and component manufacture.
The company provides tools and materials but expects the students to bring their own strong boots and overalls. A mature respect for the dangers of working in a factory and adult attitudes to responsibility and time keeping are expected: unruly behaviour results in expulsion, trainees are told.
The students are expected to learn enough during the course to reach basic skills levels, giving them distinct advantages over other students when applying for jobs in the field. But the course has no formal academic link - Kent TEC looked at the possibility of combining it with a GNVQ qualification but this was found to be impractical.
Tony Hayward, the firm's technical director, sees the course as an incubator for talent and something which could be successfully copied by firms elsewhere. "Graduate engineers are becoming an increasingly scarce commodity these days, but some of these young people could end up as graduates. Some of our apprentices show real promise and we have supported them in going to university."
Clive Watson, an engineering instructor at Sheerness docks whose 15-year-old daughter Kylie is the only girl on the course this year, says he wishes a lot more companies "would get involved in this sort of thing because they don't even teach basic metal work at schools now. Schools have a serious lack of technology teaching."