Better apprenticeships can help save UK industry

Paul Rose at Tadweld discusses the skills gap, and how businesses could make apprenticeships more attractive for potential recruits.

I’ve been lucky to have had a rewarding and successful career as an entrepreneur, but I probably wouldn’t have done any of it without my apprenticeship as a Commercial Trainee at Shepherd Construction. I was given the opportunity to study for an Ordinary National Certificate in business studies on day release from work and subsequently went on to study for a Higher National Certificate.

Today, it feels like a lot of bright young people don’t look beyond the university route, but for me doing an apprenticeship was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I firmly believe that the reason I’ve been able to adapt quickly to different demands across a variety of sectors is because my educational grounding prioritised hands-on real-life experience rather that relying on theoretical skills.

But according to UK Parliament figures, 2018/19 saw 60,000 engineering apprenticeships begin in England, though the number of new apprentices has been in constant flux, and this figure is the second lowest in almost a decade. Apprenticeships aren’t always seen as profitable straight away, and a decade of economic turbulence and uncertainty has seen them tumble down the priority list for many businesses, something we think is short sighted.

How to close the skills gap

Delivering apprenticeships and providing training is big part of our company philosophy at Tadweld. We’ve been in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, since 1978, and we take our role in the community seriously. Ultimately, we want to create good jobs and help local people build rewarding careers.

A big problem for many engineering companies today, is an ever-widening skills gap which seems to be reaching crunch-time. Which is why it’s more important than ever for businesses to take the long view and invest in building their teams of tomorrow, starting with apprenticeships.  

Tadweld is a specialist engineering and fabrication business with a team of more than 20. Like many in our industry, our team has mostly learnt on the job – either with us or with other firms. Chris Joy, our Operations Director, joined as a sheet metal worked 25 years ago shortly after completing an apprenticeship and now, he sits on the company board and plays a vital role in the day-to-day running of the business.

For us, the skills crisis means that without a mature talent pool we’ll struggle to replace experience staff when they retire, so apprenticeships provide businesses like Tadweld with a healthy pipeline of new engineers.

If we want to close the skills gap we need to make sure that we have young people wanting to come into the sector, and crucially, the training and ethos in place to accommodate and develop those that do.

Attracting the right candidates

People sometimes describe engineering and manufacturing as the ‘metal bashing’ sector, but our engineers are highly-skilled and the sector provides long-term career prospects. Engineering is fast-moving and innovative with computer-aided design (CAD) and a variety of automated processes becoming commonplace over the last decade.

Ultimately, we’re problem solvers and every single job is bespoke, working to highly specialised specifications that help our clients improve their processes. Through nurture, training and experience, our workshop team members have become experts in what they do – working with some of the biggest brands in the world – and yet it’s often a career path that is overlooked by aspirational young people.

In our industry, hard work is a must, but so is strong analytical thinking. It’s physical work, but its also mental work, which is why it’s a shame them so many young people are filtered into the university system without being properly aware of the alternatives.

We’re lucky that in Tadcaster, we’re a stone’s throw away from some first-class technical colleges, and business shouldn’t overlook these as a source of top future talent. It might take time, but engaging with them and increasing your visibility to its students will pay dividends. My suggestion would be for businesses to get in touch with local education providers to engage directly with students about what a career in engineering can offer.

Location matters

We love Yorkshire, but every region has its constraints. Firms like Tadweld tend to be based away from larger conurbations as premises are cheaper, but obviously the downside here is a smaller pool of prospective new recruits.

The cost of commuting can make it tough for people at the start of their careers which is why we recognise the importance of investing in apprentices by provided competitive salaries from day one. Of course, not all business can afford to do that, so more government support with travel costs could help candidates make apprenticeship decisions based on the training provided rather than where they can afford to travel to.

Ultimately, apprenticeships are learning programmes, and they are a significant investment in your future, which is why it is important to pursue life-long skills – even if entry-level wages are better at a supermarket.

What can businesses do?

Firstly, businesses should strive to pay good wages that reflect the quality of their workforce. We do it, but it isn’t the norm, and this is part of the problem. Wages should not become a race to the bottom and a “minimum wage” is just that – the minimum. Businesses need to work to establish the fair rate to attract top talent in their sector and area. Competitive pay will improve retention levels and reduces productivity dips associated with training and onboarding new staff.

It is difficult as the initial training period is of little productive benefit to the company, but it’s an investment and, when done right, apprenticeships are not years of menial work, they are robust preparations for a rewarding career. Not giving apprentices some responsibility will make the whole process a waste of time for them as well as your business, while the whole industry may lose out on future talent if they turn to a career in another sector.

Tadweld is thrilled to nurture talent and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing an apprentice flourish as a productive and effective member of the team. We all want to see a thriving engineering sector in the UK providing quality jobs and career alternatives to young people across the UK. The key thing is businesses doing as much as they can do make sure they are providing competitive renumeration and training programmes to attract top talent. Once they have built a talent pipeline, the focus will then need to quickly shift to making apprentices viable and productive team members.

Ultimately, if businesses want to benefit from a thriving talent pool, they are also going to have to contribute to it. Our sector is a delicate eco-system and it is the responsibility of companies of all sizes to provide good training opportunities to develop the engineers of tomorrow. Apprenticeships are a perfect opportunity to do this.

Paul Rose is Director at Tadcaster-based engineering and fabrication firm Tadweld. Paul is one of Yorkshire’s leading entrepreneur and a former winner of EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year. He joined the Tadweld board as a shareholder investor and Chairman in 2017.

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© Business Reporter 2021

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