Apprenticeship. Not a word we’ve heard on people’s lips for many years. Didn’t it seem to be the case that thirty plus years ago the term was plastered everywhere? So where are they now and why aren’t they as mainstream as they used to be? Discussing the mechanics of these points is an ex-engineer with over fifty years experience. He tells us his opinion and why a degree or even sandwich degree may be irrelevant and how reducing an apprenticeship to one year may well mean it’s not worth doing at all. Once an apprentice himself, working his way through the ranks to a top tier position, we’re asking the questions to drill down into what happened to training our skilled workers on the job.
You undertook an apprenticeship many years ago now, can you tell us why then, you chose such over a degree?
Back then people were selected for university. This was based on academic merit. It was the top set of the class that would be taken forward for further education. I was only really good at maths. If you could pay for your education, that might have been an option but otherwise, it just wasn’t the case that ‘everyone went to university.’
What was your apprenticeship and what in a nutshell were your tasks and duties?
My apprenticeship was as a signals engineer for what was then, British Railways.
For those who don’t know: The current system mostly uses two, three, and four aspect colour light signals using track circuit block signalling. It is a progression of the original absolute block signalling that can still be found on many secondary lines. The use of lineside signals in Britain is restricted to railways with a maximum permissible speed of up to 125 mph. Wiki.
It was a four-year apprenticeship with practical aspects and one day a week theory. Tasks and duties were working alongside linemen to maintain the track on the railway over six mechanical signal boxes. My duties were adjusting signals, oiling and cleaning them. This was an apprenticeship specific to mechanical signals. Communications apprenticeships were available but you had to commit to them. In return you’d be shown, assisted and then monitored while you followed instruction. More responsibility would be added over time and you spent most of the time working on the track.
How do you think even those skills could benefit a young school leaver today?
Generally, I think the approach can benefit anyone. Being taught, monitored and set minor projects is the key to learning. That’s useful in any industry which requires hands-on skills, be it bricklaying, carpentry etc. Helpful where there’s a use of tools, the application of theory and implementation. The best way to prepare you for working hands-on in industry is to work in that industry.
What do you think are the benefits of working an apprenticeship?
As mentioned, the theoretical knowledge coupled with the practical in real-life settings and a cross-section of skills that actually set you up for the job you want to do. Added to this, after the first year there used to be extensive tests by an engineer, in-office. This was conducted as one-to-one tuition where you could be quizzed on any aspect of the role and if you lacked the knowledge to answer then you would be expected to go back over the theory and learn it. Instances would cover being expected to explain electrical diagrams some quite complex, even after one year. You were learning in a relaxed environment but expectations were set none the less. There were reports on your work and at the end of such, you would still be expected to undertake an interview for a role as a technician to prove your capability.
We’ve talked about students leaving university and graduating into unemployment, do you think that the revival of apprenticeships could be the answer?
Yes, I think so. I feel quite strongly about it. There are practical courses but as previously mentioned, leaning on the job sets you up for that role. One day at college is still offered so the theory is involved also.
Do you think that there are young people with potential sitting at home who may be relying on the welfare state who could undertake an apprenticeship and for whatever reason aren’t or feel they can’t?
I’m sure there are. I feel that apprenticeships are not widely advertised enough. The government speaks of it but there’s not enough money to get the word out or rather, not enough money is being spent in doing so. Fifty years ago it was the case that apprenticeships were advertised everywhere you looked. It was commonplace for young people to leave school and begin an apprenticeship and there wasn’t the level of unemployment then, that we see today. As a society, we’re more global today but that surely only means we need to level up. We’re no longer in competition with just our classmates, it’s those from all over the world. I would suggest for the sake of school leavers in the UK that the government needs to contact companies even their own. Eg Network Rail, which is 70% nationalised so financed by the government. That’s what I did but I wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t of heard about it.
What do you think an apprenticeship can offer that perhaps a degree can’t?
I think degrees are great but so many now are not relevant. A lot of young people think: I’ll go to uni and get a degree… but they don’t really plan beyond that to forward-thinking of: how will these skills be transferable in the workplace or even: what is it that this sector in the industry are looking for. There’s a clear void between what students think is required for industry and what employers expect graduates to have in terms of ability. If there weren’t we wouldn’t be seeing not only the rise of unemployment but the rise of unemployment in graduates in the UK. To go to university and then not be able to find a job means there is clearly something wrong. Either those people shouldn’t have gone to university and the applications are too readily available and that perhaps instead they could have undertaken an apprenticeship, earning on the job and gone straight into their field of employment or they’ve chosen to study a subject that won’t prosper them later because the degree doesn’t match the industry and the jobs it has to offer. There’s more than one way up the mountain. There seems to be a gap now between options.
I would add that in the UK we need builders, engineers, auto-mechanics … the list goes on. What better way to learn skilled jobs such as these than on-the-job learning. When I undertook an apprenticeship, qualifications were still awarded at the end of it. Be it an Ordinary National Qualification specific to engineering which would be equivalent to A-Level. This extends further, it could be electrical, it could be carpentry. Mine was mechanical and electrical engineering. There was potential for some to move up within that designing signalling systems. The school system wouldn’t set you up for that, you might have an A-Level but what can you do with one A-Level? Likewise, college is a great place to further education for example with a diploma but if you’re not taking the next step to a degree and your diploma is in art and design, for example, what realistically can you do with that? Employers want to see that you’ve gained experience. The sandwich degree was a later design to compensate for this with those who did pursue further education at university, enabling them to experience a year in industry. Three years at university and one year working in that sector may prepare you, my point being, one year at college or one A-level won’t.
For those like yourself who may be great at one subject but struggle in others or have a skill but don’t see themselves as academic, could then lead to one feeling loathed to undertake an apprenticeship at all. What would your advice here be?
My advice would be to look at companies with apprenticeship schemes. If it’s mechanics then approach the company (phone, email or go there) and ask – saying you’re keen. It doesn’t have to be as ‘official’ as a job application, just ask. If you’re unsure and you ask and it’s a no, you’ve lost nothing. You’re in the same place as you are now.
If you can bag an apprenticeship and if you can prove yourself in a work environment or learn on the job then you’ll be one step closer to being employed. Nothing beats ‘work history’ on the CV.
The gov.uk stipulations on apprenticeships today state: Apprenticeships must last for at least a year. They can last up to 5 years depending on the level the apprentice is studying. What are your thought s on this?
When I was undertaking an apprenticeship the minimum term was 4 years. It seems like they’ve been made easier. But to that, I would say: What can you learn in one year? Especially when it comes to engineering, not much!
From looking at the current regs, all other aspects seem the same. I started with six other lads we were all 16 and 17 years old. We were paid to train, it wasn’t, much but that’s the same principle as today.
Was your apprenticeship a guaranteed route into employment?
It was for me, as long as you followed the four-year scheme and completed that. You could join at 17 and by 21 you’d be fully trained, have a qualification and a fully paid job. Done. There was no graduating university and not having the skills for the workplace or having never worked a job in your life and at aged 22 or 23 not knowing what you were going to do next!
Did you get a certificate after your apprenticeship?
Yes, it was issued by the railway to say you’d passed.
What of the risks of an apprenticeship amounting to nothing at the end of say, the first year? Do you think this is why it seems somewhat streamlined by the government now?
It could be why there’s an option to study for one year but that would depend on the training itself. On my course, you had the option to transfer. I started with a group of other lads as I say and one went to the Canadian railway after the first year, another to the South African railway and they continued the course there. It was a great way to travel a bit as well.
Do you think it’s a shame that apprenticeships aren’t as common as they once were?
Yes and I think it needs to be thought about. Not everyone can go to university and it won’t benefit everyone in doing so.
Were you offered a job after your apprenticeship?
How long did you stay with that firm?
I stayed one year and then I was promoted through the ranks. In the promoted role I progressed over time and the total time I worked in the role was 35 years. The apprenticeship set me up for life.
Three years ago in 2015, David Cameron announced that he would boost apprenticeships to boost training across the UK, other steps outlined, which form part of the government’s pledge to support 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 were made public also. Isn’t a skilled work-force the lifeblood of our economy as Skills Minister Nick Boles said?
Yes, but is it being upheld? I would say, no, I haven’t seen it. As I say, fifty years ago, apprenticeships were advertised everywhere. Be it for the electricity board, railway, water board companies, power stations. I don’t see adverts now. These were nationalised before and that’s changed, regardless, we still need skilled workers for skilled jobs. I would say it’s now more important than ever. That cannot be just a one year course and ticking boxes to say someone’s undertaken the training. They need to be qualified and job ready. I feel that 4 years is what’s needed. At the end of that, you could be employed or become self-employed or be transferred to a bigger company. The latter would help smaller companies with a lower paid worker (apprentice) and then apprentice could then access a larger company once qualified, having had 4 years on the job. Larger companies I assume would have a higher intake and more cash than the smaller ‘training company’ might. I believe this is how it is still run today in Switzerland & Germany, the majority of apprenticeships running for 3 or 4 years.
Lastly, if you have undertaken a four-year apprenticeship in such a hypothetical scenario and wanted to then be self-employed in any industry I would think it ideal. You could prove to your customers that you were fit to carry out the work.