The apprentices

Consultants and young people alike have grabbed the opportunities offered by new engineering technician apprenticeship schemes. This month 600 will be in training and for the future 1500 is an achievable target. Jackie Whitelaw reports.

This month three hundred apprentices start out to become engineering technicians through the Technician Apprenticeship Consortium – led by a group of 19 engineering consultancy firms from around the country. 

Overall 600 young people will be in training with UK consultancies and a further 100 will have qualified under the scheme to Engineering Council competence standards for engineering technicians. This makes them eligible for membership of a professional institution as technician engineers. 

The enthusiasm from young people for the apprenticeship opportunity is evidence of the need for the scheme. “This is not just to do with the financial issue of wanting to avoid a huge university student loan,” says TAC programme manager Sheila Hoile. 

“The TAC scheme gives people a genuine choice about whether they go to university or not. As an industry we have a fixation about academic qualifications but people all learn in different ways. It is very telling to hear a large number of our apprentices say ‘I wanted to do engineering but I couldn’t stick another three years of book learning; I wanted to work.”

“The young have a natural ability to work with the software but no engineering expertise. We can harness that ability and teach the engineering. Ten years on, with experience, these young people will be incredibly valuable and useful.” Graham Nicholson

According to current TAC chairman Graham Nicholson, executive managing director of Tony Gee & Partners: “The real power of TAC is that it can influence the colleges who provide the day release training. We help set the curriculum and make sure the colleges deliver what they have said they would.

“In the old days the issue used to be that the students didn’t turn up. But in extreme cases now it is the lecturers who don’t turn up. If we are not happy we have much more power as a group of employers to demand change.”

TAC has withdrawn students and therefore funding from colleges that are not meeting its standards.

“These institutions are slowly beginning to realise that it is a commercial world out there,” Nicholson says.

From Sheila Hoile’s point of view the employers too are changing their ways. “In the 1990s consultancies became complacent about their workforce planning. The default was to hire graduates whether they needed graduates or not and the result was that you got demotivated graduates doing work they shouldn’t be doing.

“What TAC has done for nearly all the member companies is that it has set them back looking at workforce planning and that has had a significant effect. They are now asking themselves do we need as many graduates or is it better to have a mixture of technician apprentices and graduates.”

Nicholson agrees. “For years at Tony Gee we have sponsored 10 undergraduates a year through university and that has provided us with our talent for last 15 years. We see the apprenticeship scheme doing exactly the same, building our talent for the future. We are recruiting three apprentices this year taking our total to eight in a staff of 350 but that is just the start.”

Help on offer

The intention is to bring people in who want to be technicians though some will want to go on to a full degree and Nicholson says the companies will help with that.

“But really we want our apprentices to reach a level where they feel comfortable. That will be a very high technical status – incorporated engineer level – and they will be delivering the modelling and drawing capability we need to meet all the changing BIM requirements,” he says.

“The young have a natural ability to work with the software but no engineering expertise. We can harness that ability and teach the engineering. Ten years on, with experience, these young people will be incredibly valuable and useful.”

TAC is not, however, planning to develop a BIM apprenticeship. “BIM is a process,” says Hoile. “You need to understand the engineering first in order to be able to use it to best effect so we want our apprentices to learn their engineering skills.”

The age range of apprentices is quite wide. The requirement is for five GCSEs at grade A-C including  Maths (B), English and a science subject. So most apprentices start at 16-17 fresh from GCSEs. But there are also those who realised A levels were not for them, people who want to be engineers but studied the wrong A levels for a university course or those in their 20s who realise that an apprenticeship is the best way to retrain.

Salaries from school

Apart from getting their education paid for by their employers, apprentices also receive an average starting wage of between £12,000 and £14,000 a year. There is no shortage of enthusiastic applicants.

One of the purposes of TAC when it was created was to increase the diversity of the engineering workforce including women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This says Hoile takes some work. “Last year with the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Construction Youth Trust and WISE, we focused on young people with no university family background and schools in socially deprived areas. We ran some day courses and gave them a day’s work experience. In particular, we helped them fill in the application forms – most application processes put these young people at a serious disadvantage. We took our ethnic mix from an apprenticeship standard of 5% to closer to 20%. What we realised was that if companies are serious about diversity they are going to have to put the effort in.”  

TAC is expecting to grow further. In terms of apprentice numbers “the exponential growth – 8-600 in four years – is not going to carry on,” Hoile says. But I think taking on 500 apprentices a year is possible in the short term.

Are more employers welcome to join TAC? “Yes of course,” says Nicholson. “But we are determined that we want employers who will be passionate about the scheme and will get involved especially with the colleges.

“It is for the companies to realise that there is this huge potential source of talent out there. And it is up to us all to bring them in and train them. And help our own resources down the line.

“The real benefits will be realised in five or 10 years time. It’s about building for the future.”


TAC: Companies united to get the training their employees need

The 600 apprentices now in training in consultancy is a remarkable step forward from 2010 when the first eight in the TAC scheme went into training.

Back then Transport for London, through its engineering and project management framework, demanded that companies wishing to work for it accept the Greater London Authority’s strategic labour needs and training commitment which included a target for recruiting apprentices.

There were very few apprentices in training with consultants at that time and if there were they were not associated with an apprenticeship framework. 

It was Mott MacDonald that grabbed the bull by the horns and established a consortium of six large engineering consultancy practices to plan and deliver an advanced technician apprenticeship in civil engineering.  Those six were Mott MacDonald itself, Arup, Capita Symonds, CH2MHill, Hyder and WSP.  In the space of nine months the consortium had gained approval for an apprenticeship framework, chosen a training provider by tender and started those first eight technicians on a day release course at South Thames College while employing them. ACE has been providing the secretariat for the scheme since 2012.

Since then TAC has gone from strength to strength. Forty apprentices started course in September 2011, 140 in September 2012, 200 in 2013 and now 300 this year.

Advanced Technician Apprenticeship Frameworks are in place not just for civil but also building services engineering with graduates of the scheme able to join the Institution of Civil Engineers and Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.

A new Railway Engineering Design Technician Apprenticeship has now been approved and will start in September 2015 with another to follow for Transport Planning shorty afterwards. 

Fourteen colleges are now members of the network with a service level agreement in place as to what employers expect from them in respect of the care and education of their apprentices.

TAC companies – national level

  • Arup
  • Atkins
  • BDP
  • Capita
  • Clancy Consulting
  • Crofton Design
  • CH2M Hill
  • Hyder Consulting
  • Jacobs Engineering
  • Mott MacDonald
  • Mouchel
  • Parsons Brinckerhoff
  • Peter Brett Associates
  • Tony Gee & Partners
  • Troup Bywaters and Anders
  • URS
  • Waterman
  • WSP Group


A star apprentice

Hyder’s apprentice programme is going from strength to strength. In the current intake, the design and engineering consultancy has 10 apprentices working across the typically core civil engineering sectors such as geotechnical, highways and rail, as well as two with its IT team. As one of the founding members of The Apprenticeship Consortium, Hyder has remained committed to supporting young talent find alternative routes into the profession.

According to Chantelle Ludski, Hyder’s HR and Change Director: “I’m a firm believer that an apprenticeship programme adds value to both the individuals and the business. Our apprentices are enrolled onto Hyder’s industry recognised Steps to Excellence Programme (STEP), which adds a broader business dimension to their technical experience. Whilst they are applying the theory they’re learning in college, they are also boosting their commercial awareness through modules such as project management, key account management and general management principles. From a business perspective, their enthusiasm and contribution to the team cannot be underestimated.”

Aaron French-Gibbens is an apprentice who recently qualified as a Technician in the Transport Planning and Urban Design team. He said: “I would recommend an apprenticeship without a shadow of a doubt. I believe if you know what you want to do, then you should jump straight in.

An experienced Apprentice/ Technician and eventually Graduate can have 7-8 years’ more experience than someone who has gone the university route. Both are excellent options, but it is all about what suits the individual. An apprenticeship suited me and I feel I am progressing each day.”

Alexandra Ayres is an Apprentice Civil Engineer in the London transportation team.  She joined Hyder in August 2013 whilst studying for a Level 3 BTEC at The College of North West London.

She said: “I think an apprenticeship is the best way to start a career as you are able to experience and understand exactly what you are learning at college. I’m able to apply the concepts and theories to the projects with which I’m involved. Plus, you can take it as far as you are willing to go. Working for a multinational like Hyder, I have the opportunity to be involved with major infrastructure projects all over the world, such as Doha Expressway, as well as those closer to home, such as a city cycle scheme.”

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