David Blunkett wants half of all colleges to become specialist centres. Some motor traders think they have the ideal model, reports Andrew Mourant
Motor mechanics still struggle to live down the image of the oily rag and the greasy spanner. For all the sophistication of modern car engines, not enough people want to work on them. The garage repair shop can seem bleak compared with a warm office and the fast-moving, lucrative world of IT.
Moreover, the calibre of would-be apprentices is often unsatisfactory. Many in the motor industry and in FE colleges and schools feel the Government should now face up to the problem. The UK trade is estimated to be 5,000 apprentices short - every respondent to a survey conducted by the Motor Industry Training Council (MITC) reported having too few car technicians.
One reason is the lack of an easily identifiable career path and a perception that the job is poorly paid. But workshop managers with main dealers can earn pound;30,000 a year and organisations such the RAC offer a path to degree level. In some dealerships, mechanics can branch out into other parts of the motor trade.
"The trouble is that government policy encourages people to stay on at school and go to university, rather than going down the work-based route to a qualification," says MITC director Sheila McGregor. Changes to the GCSE syllabus mean heads have to drop dedicated motor vehicle training courses - something that the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) is now trying to get into the curriculum. A few colleges and schools are working together to address the problem, particularly the skills deficiencies of would-be apprentices. Sixty per cent of those enrolling at Soundwell College, near Bristol, require learning support. Part of Soundwell's response has been to develop a pre-apprentice scheme with nearby Speedwell school, the neighbourhood technology centre.
"We discovered there were companies with lots of vacancies but they couldn't recruit people of the right calibre," said Peter Birkett, director of Soundwell's Parkway campus, a purpose-built facility and centre of excellence that has 1,200 students from across Britain.
"They don't want just basic hands-on mechanics, but people who can become technicians and diagnose faults. And for diagnosis you need a high level of numeracy and literacy skills." Soundwell has training contracts with almost 20 companies including Porsche. Its NVQ is backed with a technical certificate, covering hands-on skills such as welding and cutting.
One student who enjoys getting her hands dirty is 16-year-old Laura Noad. She is a rarity - just 5 per cent of Soundwell's budding mechanics are female. "My father used to be one and I enjoyed helping him," she said. "I like knowing how things work. In 10 years' time, I want to have my own garage."
Two hundred miles away, Bolton Metropolitan College has formed links with several schools including Rivngton and Blackrod high, where the head, John Baumber, has developed a twin-track approach to learning basic mechanics.
Brighter 14-year-olds take a GNVQ in intermediate engineering, dropping two GCSEs. Students are linked to local engineering firms such as British Aerospace. "We have established links with Bolton Training Group, which represents the needs of around 100 local engineering firms, so they can either go on to advanced apprenticeships or do a vocational A-level in engineering," said Mr Baumber.
Pupils with less ability, who are unlikely to manage a full programme of GCSEs, do a foundation GNVQ allied to work experience, along with an NVQ qualification. The plan is to find work placements as the students move into Year 1. However, Mr Baumber has had difficulty capturing the imagination of local employers.
"Firms don't seem to have the vision to work with youngsters two years before they are going to get them - we had, for instance, to force our way into Leyland," he said. "Local employers grumble about a skills shortage but when the regional director of the Lancashire Engineering Employers Federation arranged for us to give a presentation of our programme, only three bothered turning up."
The Bolton schools link was initiated by the college eight years ago to help bridge a lack of technological skills. "It has moved on from an NVQ level one for schools into more focused training with John Baumber's technological input," said Norman Fletcher, head of the motor vehicle section.
"We have the facilities that the schools don't have - these have been put in by Toyota. Schools use us because we have the equipment and the expertise to deliver. Many youngsters come to us to do the motor vehicles course proper when they leave."
Out in the commercial world, attitude and initiative are precious commodities. Colin Knowlson, managing director of Slaters in Abergele, North Wales, has taken on many teenagers at weekends and holidays for experience. Good ones quickly pick up an understanding of the workshop.
Mr Knowlson is also on the technical panel at Llandrillo College and able to offer would-be mechanics holiday jobs. But he is unconvinced about courses offered at some colleges. "One lad came to me holding a bit of paper but hadn't any experience in the workshop," he said. "Also, with technological advances coming in so fast, some colleges can't keep up." Slaters, an old-established family dealership, has little difficulty recruiting mechanics. But Mr Knowlson is familiar with the boys at careers evenings who, unable to think of any other career, talk of becoming a mechanic.
"We need to do something about the status of the job, to give it an image as good as that of the computer engineer," he said. "Here, when we go to Citro n in Slough, we fly mechanics down from Manchester to Heathrow. It gives them street cred. We need to give the profession more sex appeal."