Of the many truisms of times past, two came readily to mind recently. One is that training was carried out in a hut ‘round the back of the offices’. It was delivered earnestly and competently, but in rather spartan surroundings. To soften the blow, there might be a kettle – but you’d have to share a mug. The other truism was that we used to have apprentices. They were part of the fabric of engineering and although they always seemed to be very young, they grew up rapidly to form successive generations of skilled engineers. Being ‘time served’ had real status. Somehow, along with the shared mugs, apprentices seemed to have vanished. What on earth was the industry thinking of?
But there has been a change. Leading UK public services provider Amey – a company with more than 11,000 staff – has joined the ranks of forward-looking companies that recognise the value of recruiting and progressing the careers of a new raft of apprentices.
The great and the good
The impressive Network Rail Training Centre at Walsall was the venue for the launch of Amey Apprenticeship Academy on 18th November. The warm and ultra modern interior of this fine building contrasted starkly with the murky and chilly weather outside. Distinguished guests included Lord Digby Jones of Birmingham – an active crossbencher in the House of Lords; Mel Ewell – Chief Executive of Amey; Bill Alexander – Network Rail’s apprenticeship manager and Gil Howarth of the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE). Also stepping in front of the TV cameras were five of Amey’s apprentices – Simon Townsend, Otto Phillips, Richard Leedham, Wayne Keggans and Jason Dunn (pictured above).
Bill Alexander opened proceedings by stating that the industry is aiming to recruit 1,300 additional apprentices to provide a solid skill base. “It’s about making young people employable and making an investment in a 30-year timescale.” Eyeballing the assembled apprentices, his advice to them was “Make the most of it!”
Mel Ewell, Chief Executive of Amey added, “We are extremely proud to launch the Amey Apprenticeship Academy and invest in young people, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty.”
“It is no secret that the engineering industry is experienceing a serious skills shortage. This programme is designed specifically to upskill young people, allowing them to progress long-term careers. The academy is also our way of giving something back, helping to invest in the communities we work in and creating the next generation of skilled professionals.”
Amey’s scheme is designed to bring all their apprentices together to share experiences and best practice as well as promoting a coordinated approach to learning. It ensures that Amey trains apprentices in a way that is directly linked to the work delivered by the company. Most of them will be working on rail schemes but there is a particular focus on the CEFA (Civil Examinations Framework Agreement) contract. This involves inspecting assets on behalf of Network Rail, including its nationwide estate of bridges, viaducts, tunnels, culverts and the like.
Each individual scheme is programmed for completion in three years. The schedule is demanding. Following a period of familiarisation giving an overview of the work, the apprentice will undertake a training course looking at simple and complex structures, split between classroom tuition and a period of site training that allows skills to be practised. There are safety-related courses too, dealing with on-track safety and matters such as confined spaces and working at height. But the apprentice really learns the finer points of the job through site-based work experience overseen by a mentor. If this goes well, they will go forward to take a competence assessment – the gateway to the role of structures examiner.
Finding a career path
Mel Ewell emphasised the value of the Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award which the apprentices undertake over 18 months – this includes the DofE’s skill section which at Amey involves the following modules: Managing Customers and Diversity, Introduction to Project Management and Presenting with Confidence. Apprentices also have to submit course work reports and presentations, as well as embarking on an expedition in line with DofE requirements.
The three years spent on the scheme will give the apprentices a firm footing into the industry and give them the full structures examiner qualification. It is also envisaged that it will whet their appetite for further development, therefore acting as a springboard to a career in civil engineering. A graduation day will close the course, when it is envisaged that the appropriate level of NVQ will be awarded to the apprentices, along with other awards for outstanding achievements.
Demand for skills
The availability of the scheme came as a relief to many seeking employment after graduating from university. Those with degrees in civil engineering thought that finding work wouldn’t be a problem. Of course it wasn’t when they began studying but gradually the wheels started to fall off the economy and the employment market changed dramatically. Simon Townsend, one of the apprentices, graduated in the summer. “Lots of my course mates did Masters degrees because there were no jobs.”
With the possibility of major projects like HS2 and Crossrail, skills will be in high demand. Lord Digby Jones observed that “The West Midlands has been challenged in this recession probably more than in previous downturns because of the shortage of skills.” Unemployment there has risen compared with a fall nationally, with young people being hardest hit. This apprenticeship scheme aims to create jobs by targeting areas where specific skills are in demand.
Gil Howarth of the NSARE applauded this commitment to recruiting talented young people and helping them fulfil their potential but added that, in the context of the overall industry, there is more work to be done to consolidate the skills base. But for now, Amey’s apprentices have exciting careers ahead of them. They must indeed “make the most of it!”