Apprenticeship is back in vogue

Apprenticeships? Didn’t they die out with the dinosaurs, you ask. No they didn’t. And that’s the trouble with the UK’s apprenticeship scheme, few people realise just how valuable – and underrated – it has become, especially given all the attention that graduates and the new crop of universities have received.

We all know that so many 16-year-olds are bored with school, desperate to make a mark on the real world and to earn some money – but equally few are aware of the huge value of what apprenticeships can offer them.

Apprenticeships are ideal for attracting practical, innovative people. In my experience as an entrepreneur – and I’ve been involved in starting more than 30 companies – those firms that have started and maintained an apprenticeship scheme are much more like to succeed than those that only take on "experienced" staff.

I’ve never met an employer who doesn’t think that an apprenticeship is as good or even better value than a degree. Apprentices get to work at companies that really value their enthusiasm and dedication. Take Welwyn Components, based up in Northumberland. It manufactures key electronic components for the automotive, aerospace and defence markets.

Recently, 18-year-old David Peters, an employee at Welwyn Components, was named ‘Apprentice of the Year’ by Northumberland College. He won the award because of his exceptional academic results, continuous hard work and outstanding commitment to the course. David had joined Welwyn Components aged 16 and has recently completed his second year of the four-year apprenticeship. For the past two years he has combined working within Welwyn’s Microelectronics division as a Trainee Process Improvement Engineer with studying one day per week at the Ashington campus of Northumberland College.

But don’t think that apprenticeships are only available in smaller companies. Siemens, the electronic engineering giant, is taking no less than 69 apprentices across its UK subsidiaries this year. The Luminus Group, in Huntingdon, Cambridgshire, provides quality homes and estate services. Its chief executive Chan Abraham said that apprenticeship schemes were started in 2001 and have proved very successful, with the group retaining 80 per cent of its apprentices. It was placed 16th in 100 Best Companies to work for in the UK. Over the the past nine years the company now provides services to 7,000 properties and it employs 350 people.

Companies that really make an effort with their apprenticeship schemes get noticed. BGB Engineering is a high precision electro-mechanical engineering company based in Grantham. A regional judging panel in the Edge Employer Awards chose BGB Engineering because of its traineeship programme, which currently employs six apprentices. It also won a prize of £10,000 for further investment into its training programme.

Apprentices are also just as likely to get their hands on highly sophisticated machinery as graduates – and often much earlier in their careers. Hamworthy Combustion Engineering Ltd has a 90-year history of excellence in researching and building advanced burners.

Based at Poole, Dorset, where its test facilities are some of the best in the world, CEO Alan Barlow said "We’ve now introduced a modern apprenticeship programme. Today some 8 per cent of the UK workforce are apprentices, which is a tremendous investment."

Apprenticeships once had the reputation of being a ‘male-only’ career choice. That’s nonsense. One former apprentice is Ruth Badger, the lion-hearted, unflappable lady who starred in the BBC’s Apprentice TV series with an amazing display of determination, sales nous and personal magnetism. She has now started her own business and will be seeking to recruit a new generation of apprentices.

In fact, many apprentices get such a good grounding in business they often go on to start their own businesses – with a high success rate. Prior to starting his own business at 3A Technologies Ltd in Leicester, Managing Director Peter Wright worked in the gear manufacturing industry – following a five-year mechanical engineering apprenticeship at Spencer Gears Ltd, a subcontract gear manufacturer.

Today he has his own business and is a director of the British Gear Association. He doesn’t doff his cap to anyone with a degree – he’s easily their equal. Peter also went to gain an MBA in 2001, having already received a Certificate and Diploma in Industrial Management.

In most businesses apprentices are expected to complete the programme in 3-4 years – with either an NVQ or HND under their belt. The majority of apprentices find a permanent role within the employer’s business – in an area the apprentice enjoys and has excelled at. Believe me, these are real qualifications – you can even travel and work in places such as Europe, Australia and Canada with these certificates.

The UK government has set a target of 400,000 apprentices by 2020. By 2013, every suitably qualified young person will be entitled to an apprenticeship. Have you got involved yet?

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