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Trainees build up a head of steam

Alstom Energy makes large steam turbines - that's large as in very large. When one of these sets out on its way to a customer, Rugby's traffic grinds to a halt as the huge load inches out of the town.

"Ninety per cent of our work is for export," says senior training officer Dave Huntington. "We are a typical company driven by our customers. We have to meet customer needs and to do that we need the right calibre of people."

Some come through the Advanced Modern Apprentice route, with initial training provided by Warwickshire College in nearby Leamington.

In the first year, the apprentices take NVQ level 2 full-time at the college. They cover units set by the industry's national training organisation, the Engineering and Marine Training Authority. The minimum requirement would be 11 units, but the Alstom apprentices do 16.

"That's a full year's work," says Mr Huntington. "To supplement that we have also negotiated a BTEC national to give us the underpinning knowledge required to back up that NVQ."

In the second year, apprentices take project manufacture. First they will design a piece of equipment at Alstom's Rugby site: "Then they'll come into college. They have seven weeks to put a piece of kit they have designed together and then senior managers from the company will come and view it," Mr Huntington explains.

In the first year, the trainees will spend hardly any time at the Alstom factory, just a few weeks' induction. But the reasoning is very clear. "Our products are very large, very complex," Mr Huntington. says. "We would not put a person straight from school into our production environments - it would not be safe." But it's not only about safety. The one-year college course gives apprentices a good grounding for the site-based training that will follow.

Warwickshire has been given grade 1 by Further Education Funding Council for its engineering provision, and the college has been given the employers' highest training award for he past three years. But apprentices are not all school leavers; some already have A-levels.

"It costs something like pound;50,000 to train each person," says Mr Huntington. "I have two apprentices machining large turbine rotors. The machine they are operating is worth pound;2.2 million; the rotor they are forging is worth half a million. So a guy 20 years of age is totally responsible for the manufacture of that turbine rotor. It's very high-tech machining."

Time-served apprentices can also get university sponsorship. "It is a very good tool for university entry," says Mr Huntington. "We don't stop at the national certificate; we go to HNC and beyond. We have two people studying for the HND and one has asked about going on to university. We won't put barriers in the way."

But he does not share the current scepticism about Key Skills.

"It's imperative that apprentices have skills in IT, numeracy and communication. They have to stand up in front of senior managers and make presentations," he says.

Peter Husband is the programme area manager in Warwickshire's engineering faculty. He has a theory about why schools and colleges struggle with Key Skills.

"Curriculum 2000 has meant that areas like A levels are suddenly having to deliver the qualification," he says. "We deliver the Key Skills as part of the package. Over years of doing GNVQ, we have developed a very good understanding of what was required and a way of delivering it."

Warwickshire engineering students bucked the national pattern of failure with vocational A-levels; they all passed. And Mr Husband has seen similar success with Key Skills so far. "We don't just add it on," he says. "We integrate it into the course, make it relevant."

Alstom is clearly not your average employer, and Warwickshire's engineering course is a recognised national benchmark from which others can measure themselves. The approach really does seem to offer the best of both worlds.

Phil Revell

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