At the end of January, the Government announced apprenticeship starts had topped half a million in the UK. It said in the 2011/12 academic year 520,600 people started an apprenticeship. This is an increase of 13.9 percent on the preceding year and 86.1 percent since 2009/10. There was particularly strong growth in the engineering sector, figures revealed, with starts up 21.5 percent to 59,480. Whilst this is encouraging news, in the polymer industry it would seem the reality of finding an apprentice to ensure succession plans are made, training is suitable and return on investment achieved, is somewhat a bleaker, not to mention a more confusing, picture. I attended an Apprenticeship Summit at the Polymer Training and Innovation Centre (PTIC) in Telford earlier this year to find out the current situation and how it can change.
So, we’ve all heard about the skills shortage, but the reality is that many companies in the UK plastics and rubber industries are more than a little concerned about succession planning. With the image of manufacturing being described as “dirty and mucky”, sixth-formers being told that the only way forward is university and a distinct lack of awareness of this type of programme, it’s obvious that it’s going to be a steep mountain to climb.
So where do we start with all of this? Well, you might say, the Government is pushing many millions of pounds into apprenticeship schemes in the UK, so surely there is a pot of gold just waiting to be tapped into? It would appear not. There is a lot of money being pumped into apprenticeships but where is it and how is it being used is in need of review, not to mention additional funding, delivery models, retention rates and getting the right person for the job in the first place.
“The funding for polymer apprenticeships is unfeasibly low compared to other courses,” said Charmaine Bowers, Operations Manager at the PTIC. “This is bad news so I started a campaign two to three months ago to try and enforce change.
“Employers and businesses need to feed back as to what they need from an apprentice, across every area from funding to delivery methods to costs to business. By the industry raising its voice and outlining what needs to change with apprenticeships, the trade associations can echo concerns and recommendations to the powers that be to try and change it. It is critical that we as an industry take action now as so many companies need to ensure succession plans are in place.”
Dan Freckingham, Polymer Lead at Cogent, the sector skills council, explained that the way the funding has been calculated is specific to the course and it also comes down to supply and demand. “We need to get colleges interested in delivering the apprenticeships and we need feedback from industry as to what should go in the course,” he commented.
Aside from funding issues, Charmaine explained the polymer apprenticeship courses, of which there are currently two, are only delivered by between five and six colleges across the UK. “If we don’t engage the industry, this won’t change,” she continued.
For the polymer industry, cost to business and ROI are two key areas of concern, as well as the fact that course framework, delivery and content needs to be suitable for business. Day release, operational down-time for mentoring or training, as well as candidate suitability were all thrown up as factors and barriers that were preventing businesses from getting what they needed from an apprentice.
Knowledge sharing and succession plans are vital for successful industry continuation. In Europe, there are concrete routes in place to ensure that the next generation of workers benefits from skills passed on by the current workforce. The apprentices being hired are potentially going to be the next managers as well as project leaders, so the feedstock needs to be good, with trainees being bright, work-ready and with good interpersonal skills. But how does the industry go about attracting the best students? The image of manufacturing needs to change, said Philip Watkins, BPF President. “We need to change the perception of manufacturing as dirty, and let it be known to young people that a university degree is not the only route available to them,” he commented.
Far from it being all doom and gloom, the event highlighted the positive effects that apprentices can bring to a business when the balance is right. Claire Schallcross from Schoeller Allibert explained that despite having to overcome the issues involving funding, additional costs and delivery, the company is pleased with the three apprentices it has currently. “One of our apprentices solved a blow moulding problem that even the most experienced workers were shaking their heads over, thanks to a fresh pair of eyes and new way of looking at things,” she commented. “This, to us, means he has paid for himself already.”
The conclusion from the event is that industry needs to shout up in order to ensure workers of the future are skilled and succession-ready. British Plastics and Rubber will be reporting on future developments with regards to any changes in the apprenticeship scheme for polymers in coming issues. Further information on the current programmes is available through the PTIC.