The future is bright
04 Apr 2011
As a former engineering apprentice turned instructor, Peter Winebloom has been acutely aware of apprenticeships and how they and the wider engineering world have fared over several decades. He says now is good time to be an apprentice.
In a period of economic uncertainty, and with further education costs set to rise dramatically, Peter Winebloom recognises that attention from many sectors is turning to the positive outcomes that can result from apprenticeships. Both employers and potential employees are looking at apprenticeships with a new degree of interest.
"I think we are in a great position," says the apprenticeship and skills director of EEF, the manufacturers' association. "The coalition government has nailed its colours to the mast in terms of support for apprenticeships." He adds that ministers such as John Hayes and Vince Cable are working hard to free up more funding to grow the number of apprentices across the UK.
Apprenticeships offer a hugely flexible way to develop skills for work, says Winebloom, dismissing the idea that the golden age of apprenticeships is in the past. One of the chief benefits of apprenticeships, he says, is how flexible and accessible they are, allowing numerous entry points and the opportunity to continually develop greater skills. "The system has been well honed in terms of progression points. It is probably better in many ways than when I was an apprentice... and a lot of employers will sponsor apprentices up to their first degree," he points out.
Prestigious employers such as Rolls -Royce, as well as smaller companies, offer consistent support for apprenticeships that underlines how effective they are, he says. "Rolls-Royce identifies talented apprentices and fast tracks them," he adds.
In other companies, too, it is notable that former apprentices are often sitting in very important positions. "There is an awful lot of support for former apprentices to go on into senior management," he says. "We do tend to percolate our way through the system."
Few of those successful apprentices forget their roots, he suggests, instead making sure that they repeat the encouragement they were given, nurturing the next generation of apprentices towards achieving success of their own.
And although he is optimistic for the future, Winebloom recognises the successes of the past. "The engineering sector has a proud heritage when it comes to apprenticeships, certainly from the mid 1960s," he comments, pointing out that the industry training boards (ITBs) that operated then are still missed by some in industry. The ITBs worked on a levy system, with companies paying in to fund industry apprenticeships. He says that despite many, perhaps too many, changes in the meantime, the engineering sector has adapted and modified so that it still offers "gold standard" apprenticeship schemes. One issue around constant change, he says, is that it can put off smaller companies, which perceive higher levels of work in administering apprenticeship schemes that constantly change their names or standards.
For Winebloom, that does not detract from the fundamental appeal of apprenticeships. People can start them at any age, and can forge rewarding careers, even if they do poorly at school before realising later that they do have a lot to offer, and gain from, a career in engineering, he says.
It is likely that many such apprentices will have encountered Winebloom at some point during their training. On completing his own apprenticeship at GKN in the 1970s, he was surprised to be offered a job there as a training assistant. "The training manager obviously saw something in me that made him think I'd be a good instructor," he says. "I took off my green overalls one day and put on a white coat the next. It was an interesting transition at the age of 21, but I've been in training ever since."
After a period of working at GKN he moved around, spending 13 years working with sector skills group Semta and its predecessor organisations. He joined EEF in 2004 and, as manager of EEF's Apprentice and Skills Centre in Tysely in the West Midlands, has gone back to his roots at the coalface of apprentice training.
However, even in a sector with so much going for it, engineering apprenticeships are not perfect. And many of the problems start long before applicants even start thinking about an apprenticeship, Winebloom concedes.
"I think there is still a knowledge gap, in terms of understanding what engineering is," he says. "Youngsters don't get a lot of career advice. Many pupils are left to look after themselves, and there is a lot of pressure from schools to stay on into sixth forms." There is also a lingering perception – incorrect, Winebloom insists – that vocational courses are for less bright students.
Much of this is down to the profile of engineering and manufacturing in the media. "We only see doom and gloom on the news. But we do still have a vibrant manufacturing sector in this country," he says. But many parents do not have appropriate knowledge about the subject when it comes to giving advice and, perhaps worse, may themselves have been made redundant from manufacturing jobs, he suggests. "They are unlikely to recommend it to their kids... but I do think that parents are becoming more tuned in to apprenticeships and what they can do."
GKN Aerospace Services
GKN Automotive Inc
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