Thought bubble falls on stoney ground

The wheels in the UK’s mechanical engineering sector, and in particular machine manufacturing, could be running far more smoothly than they are. And most manufacturers claim the sector has suffered from lack of Government support, with exporters being hit exceptionally hard.

At the same time, the supply of new skills has been undermined by the greater attractiveness of other industries and some in the sector argue that successive governments have done little to turn this problem around, in terms of either graduate or school-leaver recruitment.

But government funding has, in fact, helped in the task of hunting down graduate and post-graduate expertise for roles such as machine design and project management. And with its latest 8m ‘thought bubble’ advertising campaign for apprenticeships, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is giving this type of training a higher profile than ever before.

Last September, the Govern-ment replaced its Teaching Company Schemes (TCS) with the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme for universities, whereby graduates are seconded to companies to solve particular problems, with 60 per cent of costs covered by a government grant.

These schemes can now be longer or shorter than the two years previously allocated under the TCS programme. And projects will leave individuals with an MPhil thesis under their belt – and more often than not, the offer of permanent employment.

One company which has benefited more than most from KTP/TCS is packaging machinery manufacturer Marden Edwards. But, like others in the sector, it also has to work hard at ensuring it has the correct skills base among less qualified recruits.

For at least 30 years, the company has run its own apprenticeships for 16-year-olds, combining study with paid work.

And according to HR director Diane Wolverson, the company’s four-year apprenticeships use subsidised training at a local college, and apprentices follow NVQ and BTEC curricula at the start, which can feed into HNC or even degree courses if the company feels this is useful.

However, in processing and packaging machinery manufacture, small to medium-sized companies predominate. This, together with the low margins associated with the industry, produces barriers of its own with regard to skills development.

While the biggest manufacturers have been able to maintain a regular supply of apprentices to offset the risk of losing mature employees, smaller employers are more reluctant to divert resources into this critical area of forward planning.

One initiative that may help these smaller players, encourages larger manufacturers to take on more apprentices than they are likely to need in the first year. Then in the second year, excess numbers are then placed with other companies in the manufacturer’s sub-contracting chain.
However, Stephen Gardner, director of work-based learning at the LSC, said that more needed to be done to encourage smaller firms to invest in the future.

“There is an element of risk involved in an apprenticeship, where the company may not have the orders to justify their employment,” he said, adding that many smaller businesses still regard government training schemes as being overly bureaucratic.

“Sometimes, smaller companies have looked at the subsidy as an issue, rather than looking at the young people they are developing as an asset for the future,” he said.

This year, the LSC dropped the Modern Apprenticeships tag, instead offering straight Appren-ticeships and Advanced Appren-ticeships to those in the 16 to 25 age range.

At the same time, it has introduced Young Apprenticeships, designed to combine with the school curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds, and Adult Apprentice-ships for the over-22s.

Wolverson is positive about these latest initiatives.

“I don’t believe there’s any lack of commitment in the UK from the Government point of view,” he said. “It’s the opinion about engineering in general which may be the problem.”

Like Marden Edwards, processing equipment company Giusti takes on two new apprentices a year. But technical sales manager, David George, agrees that his sector in particular suffers from an image problem.

“This is not a popular route for young people now, compared with alternatives such as electronics, aerospace or IT.”
But whether the fault lies with business, the Government or broader attitudes in society, most agree that the UK machinery sector needs to invest more heavily in its future.

As Andrew Manly general secretary of the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association puts it: “Unless we stay ahead of the game in skills and technology, we will lose ground to manufacturing in India and South East Asia, as well as Eastern Europe.” His message to manufacturers?

“Be afraid, be very afraid. But maybe not for 10 years or so.”

Pay scales

The Learning and Skills Council cannot stipulate pay rates for apprentices, but it does recommend a minimum weekly wage for school-leavers of 70.

According to packaging machinery company Marden Edwards, apprentices can hope to earn 122 per week at 16, based on a 39-hour week. By 20, this figure rises to 255.

At process machinery manufacturer Giusti, the average apprentice rate for school-leavers is around 5 an hour, although for 16-year-olds this may be slightly reduced. Graduates starting work in the design office or project teams might hope to earn 15,000 or 16,000 per annum.

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