STEM - You're hired!

20th May 2011 at 01:00
With the announcement of 40,000 new apprenticeships in the recent Budget, this once-maligned career path is making a comeback, finds Georgia Laird

'If college and uni aren't for you, then apprenticeships are perfect," used to be the perceived wisdom. Perhaps this is why Britain continues to see apprenticeships as a "cop out". However, this route suits many, particularly those keen to get into the STEM sector.

"I always loved cars," says Mark Jefferson, (pictured), 18, an apprentice mechanic for Rockingham Cars in Northamptonshire. "My dad used to build them when I was younger. Qualifications weren't my cup of tea; I wasn't interested in A-levels, so when I got the opportunity to do an apprenticeship I jumped at the chance."

When Mark was in Year 9 his school, Uppingham Community College, offered a mechanics apprenticeship level 1 course in Year 10, and level two in Year 11. Leaving school with level 2 under his belt, along with three GCSEs, Mark joined Rockingham Cars and in 2009 won the national Young Apprentice of the Year award - a happy ending to a difficult few years. "When I was 15, my dad passed away," he says. "It wasn't one of the best things but I decided to make a good thing of the situation."

When Mark qualifies he will become a professional mechanic and has the ambition to open his own garage one day. "It's a good thing that the Government is creating more apprenticeships because there are so many people out there like me who aren't academic, but benefit from the hands-on approach."

Chancellor George Osborne's Budget review in March revealed that the Government plans to invest a further #163;180 million in apprenticeship places over the next four years, on top of #163;1.4 million already invested. Apprentices, it seems, are going up in the world - and that's without a weekly visit to Lord Sugar's boardroom.

Perhaps business secretary Vince Cable's speech in February's Apprenticeship Week prompted this extra cash. "Some of the most prestigious companies in England, large and small, public and private, employ apprentices and benefit from doing so," he said at the time.

The UK currently boasts 190 different types of apprenticeships, and the "Prancing Horse", aka Ferrari North Europe, is the latest STEM programme to jump aboard. With the engineering and science industry turning over #163;257 billion per year and engineering alone accounting for 37 per cent of UK exports, more businesses are investing in the sector as it increasingly defines the industrial landscape.

Sa'ad Medhat is the founding chief executive of the New Engineering Foundation, a charity that works to develop vocational education. He says: "Today we are witnessing a number of new industries, low-carbon areas, sustainability and manufacturing. What is good about the apprenticeship approach is that it allows learners to understand technology from a professional point of view. Being a part of it helps solidify understanding."

Professor Medhat followed the apprentice route himself, before doing his PhD and becoming an IBM professor of concurrent engineering: proof that an apprenticeship doesn't mean a "backbench" career.

But research by the Learning and Skills Council in 2009 found that schools largely promoted a more traditional route of learning, via A-levels and university, adding to the perception that it was those with the lowest grades who were given the option to do an apprenticeship.

"We seem to create a stigma in this country with vocational skills," says Professor Medhat. "If you look at Germany, they develop apprenticeship programmes up to Masters level and beyond. That's something we must learn from."

Some big companies in the UK are already on the case. Jaguar Land Rover actively works with the community and in the past 18 months has made 300 school visits. The company has joined forces with BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce to "go digital". With the help of business psychologists at Mendas, the trio has launched an Engineering Apprenticeship Career Matching Tool for people to use to assess their suitability for an apprenticeship scheme.

"Many people don't realise they would make good apprentices," says Ian Eva, apprentice manager at Jaguar Land Rover. "This means we miss out on really good people."

Now, with extra funding, companies hope this will change. Employers' organisation the CBI says the Government's latest action is fundamental in giving people the skills they need to start careers. "It is really good news," says a spokesperson for the organisation. "(Apprenticeships) provide practical, business-focused training that boosts productivity.

"The Government also needs to cut bureaucracy to encourage more employers to be involved - half of employers say reducing red-tape would give a real boost to apprenticeship numbers."

The Government's recent budget offers funding to stimulate the development of 10,000 higher-level apprenticeship places in small and medium-sized enterprises. On top of that, another 40,000 new apprenticeship places have been targeted at young people not in education or training. This emphasises how apprenticeships can benefit everyone, regardless of their academic ability.

In fact, the apprenticeship scheme is so appealing that some school leavers choose it over university, proving that the route is not for school drop-outs. Rolls-Royce's latest apprentice to qualify, Cassie Leicester (pictured), 22, ditched her university offer for a place on their apprenticeship programme.

"My design and technology teacher spent 20 years in the engineering industry. I loved hearing his tales and stories; it gave me great insight into the industry, so I became an engineering apprentice."

Cassie was first wooed by Rolls-Royce at a GCSE school careers fair, where she made contacts. She continued to do her A-levels while securing herself both a place at university and a place on the Rolls-Royce apprenticeship scheme.

"I decided that degrees were expensive; you have got to fund yourself through it and there's no guarantee of a job," she says. "However, an apprenticeship offers hands-on experience, shadowing experts to learn the trade. You can also get funding to be educated to degree level, and there's a job at the end. It's win-win."

More than 30 per cent of Rolls-Royce apprentices have progressed to senior management roles, a fact that Mr Cable likes to quote. Cassie was one of six apprentices nationwide to take part in an Assembly amp; Manufacturing Leadership Development - Pre Scheme, which identifies potential leaders for the future.

"I was really chuffed," she says. "I really enjoy working with people, motivating them. The responsibility of a leadership role is something I would love in the future."

In 200708, only 8.7 per cent of all NVQSVQ awards given in engineering and manufacturing technologies were to women. Cassie works hard with Rolls-Royce to recruit more apprentices, especially female. She is also a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee.

"Personally I don't feel any different to my colleagues," she says. "There definitely need to be more women in STEM. People think engineering is an oily, greasy environment but it's not."

The future looks bright for many apprentices. But whether STEM apprenticeships have won the heart of the next generation is yet to be seen. Skills minister John Hayes is committed to dispelling the myth of the inferiority of apprenticeships and aims to put them on an equal footing with university degrees. "Our ultimate goal remains to see apprentices achieve equivalent esteem and status to university graduates, so that an apprenticeship scheme is as valued as one at university," he says.

One thing is certain: the Government's continued investment at a time when budgets are being slashed, particularly in the public sector, confirms that it sees apprenticeships as a serious route to success.

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