​Apprenticeships in engineering: it’s not all dirty work

​Apprenticeships in engineering: it’s not all dirty work

“In 2018, the Institution is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and as part of our celebrations we are profiling 200 significant projects and people from across the world. One of the showcased projects, the Stockton to Darlington Railway, was designed by the great George Stephenson. His son, Robert, was an apprentice at the colliery where his father worked, and assisted George in surveying the line, Robert went on to develop the invaluable skills he learnt as an apprentice to become as significant in the history of the Industrial Revolution as his father.

“Two hundred years ago, it was considered the norm for children to be taught the family trade by a parent or close relative. If that was not an option, the value of having a recognised craft or skill was such that families would pay a tradesman to take on their child as an apprentice.

“Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century and apprenticeships had become unattractive, numbers suffered a significant decline, and the system needed a major overhaul. In 1993 ‘Modern Apprenticeships’ were introduced, where apprentices would count as employees and be paid a wage.

“The scheme introduced a written agreement between employers and apprentices, and the focus shifted from the length of the apprenticeship (time served) to the qualification they received. The apprenticeship levy introduced last April has provided more funding for apprenticeships, and there should – in theory – be more people going into apprenticeships across the board. It is a great way to learn whilst you earn, and there is no limit to progression. Degree level apprenticeships enable learners to progress in time to the very top of their profession. But we are still not back to the heady days of George and Robert Stephenson, and there is a need to promote apprenticeships to young people, their parents and potential employers.

“The focus on encouraging more young people to choose careers in engineering has made some positive progress in the industry, but it has also unearthed the issue of how businesses approach the task.

“It is not unusual for companies to send quite senior, often older employees from the HR department into a school to talk about career opportunities and attract young people to the sector. This can actually be counter-productive, as most of the audience want to hear about what the job actually entails on a day to day basis, from someone they can identify with.

“The ICE continues to use its members as ambassadors in the community, to demystify the role of civil engineers, and to build bridges between industry and those who are potentially interested in an engineering career.

“This year the ICE launched its Cafe 200 initiative, which sees engineers of all ages giving talks to the public, explaining what civil engineers do, and profiling some of the amazing projects they have worked on or that have inspired them. The Pitch 200 competition gives engineers the opportunity to showcase a project or idea in a very accessible way to a non-technical audience. Both initiatives are a great way to get across some key messages about the importance of engineering, and the fantastic career opportunities available. Hearing that engineering is all about problem solving, making a difference to people’s lives and doesn’t have to involve getting dirty, is a powerful message when talking to a young audience.

“With the right people, in front of the right audience, we can help people understand that modern engineering offers the opportunity to be creative and inventive, and is a career option that offers the chance to shape the world.

“Happily, there is no longer a need for families to pay for a child to go into an apprenticeship, and we should be doing all we can to promote it as a viable path to successful employment.”