Apprenticeships are a much discussed topic within the engineering sector, fuelled by the government initiative to increase the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) opportunities. Further Education establishments are a key part of the apprenticeship programme, providing the essential link between hands on skills and academic achievement. In this interview Darren Hankey, Principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education discusses both the benefits of apprenticeships and the essential role partner employers play in supporting the activities of the College.
Darren began working in the sector in 1996 and for the College in 2001 as a middle manager before joining the senior team in 2009 and becoming Principal in 2013. His twenty years’ experience in education makes him well placed to comment on the increasing drive towards apprenticeships and the resultant benefits that can be realised for both the apprentice and their employer.
“As Principal I get to meet and work with a diverse range of young individuals who have high aspirations for their future. I also work closely with their employers who are equally committed securing the best outcome for their staff. We also have mature students seeking to progress their education and this is also rewarding.”
The College aims to provide an apprenticeship programme that meets an individual company’s needs. Altec’s apprentices work 9-5 five days a week and this is where they begin to develop their essential skills for the workplace such as time keeping and organisation. Their average day consists of working in one of the College’s workshops or labs learning their specific trade and this is underpinned by theory lessons which are classroom-based. Once they begin working in their respective organisations, they return for one day a week to continue learning the theory behind engineering. Courses last for three years in total. All apprentices work towards their NVQ Level 3 and can progress on to do their HNC and then move on to working towards their engineering degree.
One question that raises its head with increasing regularity is that of the number of women seeking careers in engineering. Hartlepool has seen a rise in numbers and Darren explains the College’s pro-active approach. “We support the Women in Engineering initiative in any way we can, for example this year we hosted a day of activities dedicated to encouraging girls into engineering. We have some fantastic female engineering students currently studying at our College, and recently several have been the College’s Engineering Student of the Year and the College’s overall Student of the Year - Altec’s Eilish Millar recently gained such recognition. With girls dominating the awards over the past few years, they act as role models for the younger students.”
Industry Links Boost Success
The success of the apprenticeship programme at Hartlepool College of Further Education is bolstered by its strong partnerships with key local businesses such as the Altec Engineering Group. Darren explains: “Partnerships such as this benefit the students, as they gain a high quality experience. Research suggests that if you have exposure to the workplace before the age of 24, you are more productive throughout your working life. For our students, they are not only gaining theoretical knowledge but by working at companies like Altec they are gaining valuable life experience. The partnership also benefits Altec, as they gain the skills they need to progress as a business, they can implement a succession planning strategy and ensure they develop with the times. For the College, this means we receive support and funding from the government, and we can enhance the quality of the qualifications we offer, which is the core of our business.”
For students who are unsure whether an apprenticeship is right for them, Darren offers this advice: “Because we work with organisations like Altec, starting an apprenticeship with us more often than not leads to a good job. My background is in economics, so looking at the job market I can understand how difficult it can be to find not just a job, but a good job. Research has found that students who choose an apprenticeship, in most instances, do go on to have a full working life, which in uncertain times is a reassurance. Another advantage of an apprenticeship is the wage you earn, and you still have the option to progress on to a degree without any of the student debt university students face. Apprenticeships are also very accommodating for different ways of learning.”
From Spring 2017 the way the government funds apprenticeships in England is changing. Some employers will be required to contribute to a new apprenticeship levy, and there will be changes to the funding for apprenticeship training. The apprenticeship levy requires all employers operating in the UK, with a wage bill of over £3 million each year, to make an investment in apprenticeships. Darren has a view on this and its potential impact on apprenticeships and employers: “I can see where the government is coming from - employers do need to help develop their own staff and to pay for this. As with any change, you have to think of the unintended consequences which, in this case, could potentially displace investment in staff and training that would already have taken place. That said, at Hartlepool College of FE, we will work hard to ensure the new regime works for all of the companies we work with.”
The importance of apprenticeships cannot be underestimated. Statistics show that currently only around 15% of UK businesses take on apprentices. Ideally Darren would like to see this figure in the 80’s. “I know the economy in the North East is made up of small to medium sized businesses, and one positive aspect of the levy is that many of these businesses will not have to pay it because of their annual revenue. My advice would be to seriously consider taking on an apprentice, and if it seems daunting to get in touch with us. We can offer advice and guidance and join the dots for any employer considering an apprentice.”
Clearly with the enthusiasm of individuals like Darren Hankey and the pro-active approach the College takes to promoting apprenticeships and partnering with key local businesses, the North East, with its long standing engineering heritage, will continue to have a ready supply of young, willing and highly trained engineers.