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How would your managers and senior employees feel about becoming an apprentice? The OED might still define it as “a person learning a trade from a skilled employer for a fixed period at low wages”, but what apprenticeships are beginning to represent, and the influence of the new levy, means employers are looking hard at how the new funding can be used to keep older, highly-skilled staff within the engineering sector.

How would your managers and senior employees feel about becoming an apprentice? The OED might still define it as “a person learning a trade from a skilled employer for a fixed period at low wages”, but what apprenticeships are beginning to represent, and the influence of the new levy, means employers are looking hard at how the new funding can be used to keep older, highly-skilled staff within the engineering sector.

Dr Emma Sparks, Head of Centre for Systems Engineering – Cranfield University.

There’s a particular value in a sector like engineering with an older workforce. The Engineer’s Salary Survey last year suggested around 40 percent of the sector’s population was 50 years or over. Huge rates of retirement are predicted for the coming decade in engineering, leading to worsening skills gaps and a leaking of skills and knowledge in an industry which is a foundation to the UK’s economy. Traditionally, it’s also been the older employees who haven’t seen the relevance of continuing learning and professional development – especially when it has involved periods of time away from the workplace. That’s meant a more linear career ladder with fewer opportunities to get involved with new, developing areas of businesses and new challenges which keep skilled engineers engaged.

Traditionally, of course, apprenticeships are employer-led, designed and run on the basis of specific needs – in terms of skills and behaviours – and crucially and valuably, the details of real-life roles. But in the context of more senior and experienced employees, they can also provide the space and opportunity to take on high-level research relating to particular areas of challenge or opportunity. So not just qualifications for entry-level training – and well-suited for use for lifelong learning – developing high-potential graduates, managers and other experienced staff at degree and Master’s degree levels. In this way they can also deliver upskilling in very specific technical areas that will allow individuals to drive forward specific areas of innovation.

So the ‘apprentices’ don’t have to be learners, they can be leaders. Additionally, the extent of the impact of the levy shouldn’t be underestimated. It changes attitudes to budgets for learning and development for the short-term, and how they need to be used to either recoup the expenditure or take advantage of subsidies. These result in a shift in the nature of how employers work with the education system; a shift from being a customer to being a partner and participant. The first apprentices were recruited to Master’s level apprenticeships (level 7) in 2016. One of the first programmes was set up among employers in the defence sector alongside Cranfield University (the Systems Engineering Master’s Apprenticeship Programme or SEMAP), where there are now around 70 apprentices from ten different employers. The development of SEMAP was driven by the Defence Group Partnership, a partnership between Government and the Defence Industry with the remit to secure a globally successful UK Defence sector and through-life support for our Armed Forces and international customers, as well as bringing wider economic benefits to the UK. The programme was developed to help address the acknowledged skill gap for systems engineers within the defence industry but is considered valuable for broader application. Peter Moore is the Systems Engineering Skills Group Lead at defence technology business Qinetiq: “QinetiQ recognised that the skills gap couldn’t be filled by the efforts of a single employer, nor by a number of employers acting individually. The partnership approach means that the programme is both aligned with customers’ needs as well as the long-term perspective shared by the wider sector. The involvement of professional bodies ensures that the competency framework is recognised across industries, in defence and more widely across engineering-related employers.

“For QinetiQ, high calibre Systems Engineers are being used to manage increasingly complex programmes across diverse technical disciplines. They allow high levels of collaboration and innovation to deliver mission critical solutions to customers. Systems engineering has value both as a specialist discipline in its own right, and also as a set of principles that all of the engineering, scientific and technical staff should apply to ensure that projects deliver the optimal solution to meet the customer’s needs. A good Systems Engineer is a good Technical Leader. A recent restructuring within QinetiQ has brought together all 340 Systems Engineers managed as a specific professional discipline. This allows the organisation to take a coordinated and focussed view of the systems engineering capability we have within the company and develop a coherent development strategy for our engineers. The Masters apprenticeship is an important part of a portfolio of development opportunities that also includes a structured graduate programme, a range of internal and external training courses, focussed short courses for specific tools or methodologies and vocational experience. Although Qinetiq was already using academic partners to offer MSc education in Systems Engineering, the apprenticeship model has allowed the business to offer a high-level programme on a larger scale due to the funding mechanism. Particularly, with the introduction of the levy, we now deliver apprenticeship training across the full range from an established Apprenticeship School for entry-level candidates up to the Master-level programme. SEMAP is offered to both early career staff who have recently completed their graduate programme, as well as to mid-career technical staff who are looking to move from another engineering discipline into Systems Engineering. From the first cohort in January 2016 Qinetiq has had continued interest from employees, and by the end of 2017 it expects to have 15-20 learners going through the programme.”

Under this kind of approach, employees understand the opportunities for personal development and, importantly, the commitment of the employer to lifelong learning is demonstrated by making this available in the first place. Despite the positive response from employees so far, the perception barrier around the ‘apprenticeship’ brand, and what this means to most organisations and most employees, continues. HR needs to find ways to clearly associate the opportunity with existing senior-level development, and make sure its status is understood both among new recruits and at all levels, reaching older staff. It will be important to link apprenticeship programmes to the bigger, high-profile organisational change initiatives – stressing that anyone involved, at whatever stage in their career, has a central role in shaping future success. Rob Campbell at design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins – another employer partner involved with setting up SEMAP – was mid-career, working as a Training Manager when he decided to re-train. “I could see some individuals having an issue with being classed as an apprentice,” he said. “From my own experiences though, the term apprentice just means that you are on a journey to developing key engineering skills and experiences in a managed environment – we’re all learning and need to keep on learning. For me, SEMAP was an an opportunity to gain the high-level engineering understanding I needed to develop the most effective training for the organisation as a whole – particularly in such an innovative area as systems engineering – and improve my management skills.”

Juggling everyday responsibilities and pressures with studying at a high-level has always been a headache for more senior staff. QinetiQ has found it is crucial for learners and managers to understand from the beginning the commitment required from the employee and also from the company. Although it allows staff a significant amount of time for attending taught modules and associated study, they are expected to undertake an amount of the study in their own time. Another key to the success of the programme is the allocation of experienced mentors to work with each learner through the programme. The mentor supports the learner to maintain progress against target competencies. They also help ensure the learner has access to the appropriate vocational opportunities – a fundamental part of the programme in terms of building on the academic learning. Rob says: “Managers need to plan ahead the modules they are looking to attend well in advance and ensure they include in their plan, the time required to carry out the pre-reading and post module assignment. The work-based nature of apprenticeships means managers can enhance their levels of adaptability and flexibility to potentially work across multiple domains.” QinetiQ took over the role as Lead Employer within the Trailblazer group following the foundations laid by Atkins when the programme was first established. One of the current priorities now is to build on the defence-industry focus and widen the appeal to employers from other sectors within the wider engineering industry. An example of this is the proposed introduction into the programme from September 2017 of elective modules from other academic partners.

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