Bentley's way of training is the future for British industry

The luxury car manufacturer is a firm believer in apprentice schemes, giving youngsters a real alternative to leaving school with no qualifications or getting into debt at university. Margareta Pagano reports
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The Independent Online

It is transportation fit for a king, perhaps even a Premier League footballer: the Bentley Continental is a cross between a fighter jet and a Chesterfield sofa.

And to get behind the wheel in your early twenties you need either to have won the lottery or won the Cup but Louis Warburton hasn't done either yet. In fact, he studies one day a week for a foundation degree in engineering at Mid-Cheshire College and he's just finished his first year.

But Louis, 21, is no ordinary student – he's sponsored by Bentley – and the rest of the week he works as a junior resident engineer in the body and trim test department. He works on the Continental GT as well as the monster £220,000 Mulsanne, the first new super-saloon from Bentley for 80 years, and due on the road any day. "It's special here," he says. "and exciting. Even the people at Tesco across the road ask me about my work, what I've done today. That's really nice."

For all the joys of his job, Louis is still worried by the stigma attached to apprenticeships. "I don't like that. They think you are the broom boy, who couldn't go on to study more or university. It's ignorance because they don't understand how apprenticeships work. But I'm an advanced apprentice, have a job I love, get paid for it and go to college. And I don't have any debt," he says before flashing a cheeky grin. "Who's laughing now?'

Certainly not the thousands of college leavers and graduates who are leaving higher education this summer with little or no prospect of work. On the day I meet Louis at Bentley's enormous 65-acre site at Pyms Lane in Crewe, government figures showed that 70 graduates are now chasing each job. With the students leaving this summer, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds without jobs or training is nudging a million. With spending cuts across every sector of government, and private business still languishing, the prognosis for these youngsters is bleak. So Bentley, now owned by Germany's Volkswagen, is doing what it can to help.

The firm hopes to sell 5,000 cars this year, more than last, but still a long way from the peak in 2007 when it sold 10,000. The latest Mulsanne is already tempting the world's mega-rich to burn their cash and turn up at the factory to have their bespoke cars painted the colour of their wife's favourite evening dresses, or in one case, nail varnish. Bentley expects 800 Mulsannes will be sold next year – about 80 per cent going to foreigners – which will keep the factory busy.

The outlook is certainly good enough for Julia Gill, in charge of training at the Bentley Academy, to offer more apprentice, work-experience and graduate-training programmes this year. "We've been able to increase the number of places as we're investing in workers for the future, for the next Bentley model," she says. "The Germans understand that better than anyone." Since VW took over Bentley 12 years ago, more than £1bn has been invested in new plant, machinery and training for its 3,500-strong workforce, 500 of whom are design engineers.

Even so, Bentley can't keep up with the record demand for training places. More than 400 school leavers applied for the 20 apprentice places, while 1,200 graduates put their names forward for the 18 graduate places which will be filled this October. That's 72 applications for each job, just higher than the national average, and twice more than last year.

Gill herself is third-generation Bentley, joining 26 years ago as an apprentice at 16 just as her father, and grandfather before her did, although the marque was then owned by Rolls-Royce, as it was until the VW takeover. A nephew has just joined, making it the fourth generation. "Bentley – and before that Rolls-Royce – are Crewe; we reckon that about a third of the staff have relatives working here, or who have worked here, and it's an important part of the community," she says. The average length of service is an astonishing 17 years per employee.

That's why it's so shocking when Gill agrees with Louis that being an apprentice carries a stigma, even in engineering capitals such as Crewe – the former home the old railway works where so many of Britain's great steam engines were made.

"There's a blind spot about apprentices," says Gill. "Neither the teachers nor careers advisers explain how apprentice schemes – there are 100 or so different sorts – work to their pupils. Even worse is that in many schools the youngsters are not even told they are available. They seem to have only two alternatives – kids leaving school at 16 unskilled or pushing them to university or higher education.

"It's tragic because many can't afford university and many don't want to go, particularly boys who are keen to get out and work in the real world."

Louis nods vigorously. "Nobody really talked to me at all about what I wanted to do. They knew I liked engineering, and mucking about with cars, so they suggested I took a car mechanics course at the local college. But it was too wet, windy and dirty for me," he laughs. He got lucky, found out by chance about work experience at Bentley, and then joined the scheme.

What's even more worrying for Gill, and Bentley, is that the literacy and numeracy levels at some local schools are simply not up to scratch; all potential Bentley apprentices must have GCSEs in maths, English and science at grade C. At one school near to the factory, King's Grove, more than a third of the pupils don't achieve those grades. "Too many of the youngsters are coming out of school who are not employable," she says.

Bentley is so concerned that it's decided to do something about it. Gill is part of a new working party which, together with King's Grove's new headmaster and other local employers, will be pitching in to find ways to improve academic levels and encouraging vocational training.

And Louis is their best advocate, as Bentley director and head of human resources, Christine Gaskell, knows. "He's not fazed by anything. He talks to the teenagers in schools with the same confidence he talks to company executives."

Gaskell has even bigger ambitions for Bentley's training programme; by 2018 she wants half the production staff to be skilled, by encouraging new apprentices but also by offering the apprentice training to all workers up to the age of 65. If Gaskell had a magic wand, she would wave it to ensure that all teachers went on work experience themselves. "We've got to get people in education and business talking more. It's in everyone's interests if we are going to help the young to find jobs and to improve skills in this country."

Lewis Jones is another advanced apprentice, now working in the tool room, and has just started his foundation engineering degree at South Cheshire College. Lewis, 18, also got no help in choosing a career while at school, and stumbled on the schemeinstead. With some German, he's keen to take part in the Wanderjahr scheme whereby all the group's apprentices are allowed to spend 12 months working at plants in Germany and Portugal, and take part in the World Skills Competition. "There's still lots I want to do, you know. It's not like I'm 20 or anything like that," he says. Oh, sweet youth.

Sophie Heathcock is taking a slightly different tack; she's on the three-year business apprentice course and takes great delight in telling how she surprised her school teachers when she told them university was not for her, despite three Bs at A-level. "I didn't want to go straight off to study, partly because I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, and heard about this scheme from a friend. The friend didn't get in, but I did." After six months at college sponsored by Bentley, Heathcock, also 18, works in the academy and will soon have a spell in engineering to learn how the cars are made. Now that she does know what she wants to do, Sophie has signed up for a part-time, four-year, business management degree course at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Cruising back to Crewe's once grand rail station, in the most elegant porcelain coloured Flying Spur – the Continental's sedan model – I'm cheered by the confidence of these young apprentices. It's no exaggeration to say there's a special spirit which pervades the place, from the factory floor to the board. But there are also big questions. Why do a third of teenagers at Crewe's local schools achieve such low grades in 21st-century Britain? (They've been at school for 11 years of their lives so what have they been taught.) Why aren't careers advisers and teachers better informed about the alternatives to further and formal education, and what are we doing as a country about our bright young things who haven't yet had the good fortune of Louis, Lewis and Sophie? If companies such as Bentley making such an effort to improve skills, you have to ask, what precisely are the schools doing?"