Made in Britain Part Three: The next generation

Youngsters at the heart of Rolls Royce's future

Britain has long neglected apprenticeships but Tom Bawden finds a scheme that is reviving a tradition vital to industry expertise in manufacturing

Some of Emily Cook's happiest childhood memories come from the times she spent fixing and restoring motorbikes with her father, an engineer, in Rolls-Royce's home town of Derby.

The fun she had mending those bikes combined inside Ms Cook with the buzz from having the world's most famous engine-maker just 10 minutes down the road, and it wasn't long before she decided she'd like to work with engines for a living.

So much so that she didn't want to wait until she'd finished school before getting a job. Luckily Royce offered apprenticeships to schoolchildren, so she didn't have to.

And so, at just 14 years of age, Ms Cook was able to spend a day a week at Rolls-Royce on its young apprenticeship scheme while cramming her schoolwork into the other four days.

Ms Cook, now 15, is coming to the end of the so-called pre-apprenticeship scheme and will begin its advanced programme in September.

Working for a company whose aeroplane engines are propelling 400,000 people through the sky at any one time has been a heartening experience for her. "It's made me realise you can do a lot more than you think," she says. "I've learnt you have a look at it, break it down and realise it's not as hard as you thought.

"To me, a lathe was a great big scary machine that I'd never used before, but I realised that I had that ability. When I take on tasks now, I feel like I might be able to do them."

Rolls-Royce turbines are used to propel ships and generate power at offshore stations. The car business is no longer part of the group, having split off in the early 1970s.

"A lot of the kids there [at school] are quite jealous," says Ms Cook. "They're going on to six form and don't know what will happen. I've got my future mapped out, I know what I'm going to do."

When The Independent met Ms Cook, she had just finished stripping a starter motor on an old Rolls-Royce RB 211-535 engine, best known for powering the Boeing 757 aircraft. Sitting around one of the tables in Rolls-Royce's workshop-cum-classroom, she and two colleagues, Emma Howe, 23, and Matthew Serementa, 18, argue that apprenticeship schemes provide Britain with a model on how to manufacture its way out of its struggling services-orientated economy.

"Engineering is a dying art, but we now realise what we have to do," says Ms Cook.

Ms Howe adds: "Manufacturing was what got this country on its feet. For too long we've been moving away from it. But that's what we need,"

After years in the doldrums, apprenticeship schemes are becoming more popular as companies push them harder, and the Government increasingly promotes manufacturing as a valuable activity.

But the recent hike in university fees, combined with dwindling prospects of a job afterwards, is by far the biggest driver of applications for apprenticeship schemes such as those at Rolls-Royce, which have a guaranteed job attached.

"For most of my friends the fee increases are a massive problem and then there are no jobs at the other end," says Ms Howe. "One of my friends got a First from a university in London – one of the fancy ones – and is now a bell boy on a cruise ship. Another friend went to art school in London and is now a grave-digger. It was only meant to be a stop gap, for a year, but he is still doing it."

Mr Serementa adds: "Since the Government has said it's going to hike fees, a lot of my friends have said 'I'm not going to do that, that's a ridiculous idea.' Before, a lot of them would probably have gone to university because that was the thing to do."

There were 4,000 applicants for the 200 places in Rolls-Royce's three UK apprenticeship schemes this year, up from 3,500 last year, 3,000 the year before and just 1,000 five years ago. About two-thirds of the apprentices are 19 and younger, while the oldest is 47.

The BBC's hit show The Apprentice may also have had something to do with the scheme's popularity, but the Rolls-Royce intake is withering about the show. "The Apprentice seems to be a parody. It's all about getting noticed rather than being good at the job. It gives the illusion that it pays to be loud and get heard – that's not true," says Ms Howe.

Rolls-Royce is set to double the number of apprentices it takes on in the UK to about 400 over the next few years, as it looks to train up staff at local companies, such as the engineers Bombardier and Balfour Beatty, as well as suppliers, such as Paul Fabrications, a Castle Donnington-based materials maker, and Accrofab, a parts maker from Derby. The group also has about 100 apprentices overseas.

"Having a strong, capable supply chain that we can rely on is so important. If we're going to continue to grow significantly, we need our supply chain to be robust and to grow at the same rate," says Rolls-Royce's head of development services, Graham Schumacher. "The supply chain has done well at the size we're at today, but growth is going to be a challenge," he adds.

Mr Schumacher says there is a particular shortage of younger skilled workers in British engineering companies, which he says has resulted from many businesses scrapping their apprenticeship schemes in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, about two-thirds of the kind of skilled engineers that are so valuable are over 45, which means British industry is heading for a severe shortage in the coming years if it doesn't ramp up the number of apprenticeship schemes on offer, Mr Schumacher says.

"Not only do our suppliers need to replace retiring employees but they also need to be able to cope with a greatly increased workload. At the same time, you need younger people to cope with the newer technologies," says Mr Schumacher, who graduated from the company's apprenticeship scheme 40 years ago.

Luckily, it seems that companies have belatedly realised the problems they are storing up and are starting to do something about it.

"It's dawned on companies in recent years that there is a hole in the apprenticeship training period that has left a significant gap. The penny has now dropped and we're seeing that across UK manufacturing," Mr Schumacher adds.

Mr Schumacher is pleased with the class, ethnic and age mix of the apprentices on his schemes. But he does have one beef – at just 12 per cent, female participation is definitely growing but remains lamentably low.

"In each of the last four years, our Apprentice of the Year award has been won by a girl. When girls do come in they excel. But girls get switched off by teachers, parents, general society. So we're trying to more actively promote it to them in school, pointing out that engineering is team-based, concerned with problem-solving and communication," Mr Schumacher said.

At between £70,000 and £95,000 a head for a three- to four-year programme at Rolls-Royce, apprentices are not cheap. But Rolls-Royce's success suggests worthwhile. After a more than fourfold increase in profits in the past decade, Rolls-Royce is sitting on a record order book worth more than £62bn. And it expects sales to double over the next decade.

"If you keep cutting costs and don't invest anything you'll be left with no workforce and you'll have to recruit from elsewhere. And if you recruit from elsewhere, you'll get wage inflation," says Mr Schumacher.

Surveying the scene at Rolls-Royce's main engine room across the complex, Rob Bell, a programme executive at the company, sums up the impact of the apprenticeship scheme on the company.

"If you did a straw poll in here I reckon about 70 to 80 per cent of the guys will have come up through the apprenticeship scheme – in some cases quite a long time ago," he said.

In order words, it pays handsomely in the future to spend now.

Apprenticeships: quality the key

When it comes to apprenticeship schemes, the Government appears to be putting its money where its mouth is in pursuit of its often-derided call for "a march of the makers" to revitalise the UK economy.

The number of apprentices enrolling in the UK has soared of late, in line with government investment in them. While the upfront costs can be quite high, a report by the National Audit Office estimates the schemes generate £18 for every £1 invested.

Not that apprenticeships are for everyone, and in many cases they're no good. Six years ago, a mere third of apprentices actually completed their schemes, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), in what amounts to a damning indictment of something that could be a major force for social and economic good. In some cases the apprentices were made redundant or fell out with their employer. In others, they simply lost interest. These days, the completion figure is 75 per cent, as courses have become longer and better run.

There is, of course, a danger that the growth in apprenticeship places may entice increasingly unsuitable people into them. But their growing popularity as a desirable career option should ensure that the reverse is the case. Employers just need to offer a worthwhile scheme, and the indications are that quality is improving, although there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"We have concerns about the amount of quality and training some apprentices receive," said Margaret Hodge, chairman of the PAC, in a report in May.

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