Shipyards shape the workers of the future

The skills shortage in the shipbuilding industry has prompted Swan Hunter on Tyneside to recruit apprentices in their mid-thirties. Steve Hook reports.

SHIPYARD workers aged up to 35 are being recruited in Tyneside to replace a "lost generation" of trainees and keep the north-east's shipbuilding industry afloat.

The expansion of the Modern Apprenticeships scheme to older workers has come about after research among Tyneside employers proved what many had long suspected - there are not enough skilled people in the industry to replace those coming up for retirement.

A thousand people applied for just 16 places on a programme which aims to plug the generation gap between young apprentices and workers in their 40s and 50s.

Swan Hunter (Tyneside) in Wallsend, near Newcastle, is running the pilot which offers training over two years instead of four. Progress has been so encouraging that the scheme is expected to be adopted by other companies. Tyne and Wear Learning and Skills Council is also looking sympathetically at part-funding the scheme over a wider area.

The local LSC and other sources of public funding cover about 70 per cent of the cost of the adult apprentice pilot scheme. Public funding for a national version of the scheme is yet to be decided.

Swan Hunter's quality, health and safety and training manager Ken Relton, started as an apprentice himself at the age of 16. He remains confident about the prospects of people who go into the industry. The flexibility of modern apprentices means they will be highly-valued in the engineering industry, regardless of the fortunes of British shipbuilding over the coming years, he says.

He has even telephoned parents of would-be apprentices to encourage their children to take up the opportunity of training. He feels the need to do this, he says, because many people do not understand what the industry can offer. Some parents do not realise that there are opportunities for progress to higher education.

"I started at the bottom and they can come at least as far as I have. British engineers are respected around the world," he said. "You can go on to degree level here and we're prepared to pay for that. All we ask for is commitment.

"One parent said she didn't want her son to come here because she wanted him to be an engineer. But the point is, we can get people to that stage."

All over Newcastle are the signs of traditional employment in decline. Modern art galleries and expensive housing occupy spaces once reserved for industry. By the river, a redundant grain warehouse has a new lease of life as a modern art centre. Former workers can go and view exhibits that include a gong which, it is claimed, makes the sound of "semen" (sic) when you strike it.

But this facade of industrial decline, by no means unique to Newcastle, can be misleading. Engineering across the country is crying out for recruits and Swan Hunter is no exception.

Mr Relton believes the investment in training will put the company in a good position to bid for Government contracts. A dry dock is being built on the site, and there is a good chance the company will land the contract for the next British aircraft carrier-a project these latest apprentices will almost certainly find themselves working on if it comes to Tyneside.

The initial stage of the programme for older apprentices, the equivalent of an advanced MA, is delivered by South Tyneside college, where they complete a course in engineering operations at NVQ level 2. General skills are offered alongside the specialisms of plater or welder. There is a City and Guilds level 3 award for fabrication and welding and, at the shipyard, they progress to level 3 in engineering production.

Key skills courses - compulsory on MAs and a headache from the point of view of many employers - could also prove to be unpopular with this older generation of apprentices.

Stephen Coleman, 36, one of the adult apprentices, said: "I don't really like the key skills part of it. I wouldn't have survived this long without knowing that sort of stuff and I'm not sure we need to do it now. But the rest of it is good."

This is his second shot at a shipbuilding apprenticeship. Last time round, he was on a four-year programme which shut because of the decline in the industry.

Despite this, he is confident about his prospects. "This time, I do think there's a future. They're not investing in a dry dock for nothing and, if we get the aircraft carrier job, that's going to last several years by itself.

"I don't mind working with the younger apprentices. I think its different at our age because we know where we're going."

His colleague Andrew Garside, 33, a former steel erector whose previous work experience includes a spell in the army, says he knows of plenty of people who would go for adult apprenticeships if they were available.

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