Small firms reap recession legacy

"HERR Doktor Engineer" is a prestigious title in Germany, but Britain has so few engineering trainees that it struggles to replace its existing workforce.

"Engineering still has the oily rag and spanners image," said Ian Carnell, manager of training and development at the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA). "We're trying to change it, but it's like trying to turn round a super-tanker - it takes time."

EMTA, the leading body for training in engineering manufacture, has calculated that Britain needs 12,000 young people to start Modern Apprenticeships each year. Yet recruitment seems to have hit a ceiling at 7,000 to 8,000. Apart from the image, EMTA pinpoints money and education policy as the roots of the problem.

The Government provides subsidies through Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), but EMTA has discovered great disparities in their distribution across the country. Average basic training costs up to pound;8,000 per apprentice but TECs may contribute anything between pound;3,500 and pound;10,000, often leaving a deficit which small businesses cannot afford to make up.

In the past there was an industry training levy, supported by the Government. Large companies, such as British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce, would train more people than they needed, employ those that suited them best and release the others into the local economy. Small and medium enterprises would benefit, picking up qualified and productive technicians.

In the Eighties the recession hit. Company minds focused on the short-term bottom line and training facilities were closed. But even where training has restarted, companies now take on only the people they need, so local firms no longer benefit from their larger neighbors. Eighty per cent of engineering firms now employ 25 people or less, and cannot afford long-term investment in training.

Engineering training has also slipped between the cracks in education policy. Modern Apprenticeships were set up in 1994-95 to sharpen the academic edge of vocational education. But with a high entry requirement of five GCSEs at grade C or above, they were in direct competition with the market for A-level students. Schools have financial incentives to hang on to their sixth-formers, and the drive to increase university student numbers has attracted able students away from the vocational route.

Ian Carnell believes that young people need to be able to see a much clearer progression through work-based routes, with training moving from further to higher education throughout their career.

Under EMTA's plan, school-leavers would start in a job that paid wages and provided them with further education and training. Later, they could go on to higher education and training sponsored by their firm, which would get an engineer whose training was tailored to the firm's needs.

This can happen now, but the transitions need to work more smoothly. Work, further and higher education can seem like separate countries whose documents are not always recognised at their mutual borders. Students with Modern Apprenticeships can get to university, but while key skills generate points under the UCAS system, NVQs 3 and 4 do not. Ambitious young engineers believe that they can get a degree only by following the A-level route.

Yet many chief executives started as engineering apprentices. The EMTA wants young people to realise that education and training will be available throughout their career.

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