Apprenticeship An Option To Degree Says Keighley Labs

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Enjoying an excellent start to 2012 and scheduled to start work on a new factory extension this summer, Keighley Laboratories is keen to recruit and train its next generation of skilled heat treatment technicians and metallurgists to pave the way for further growth.

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With many of its qualified staff approaching retirement age over the next decade, succession planning is now a priority for identifying and developing personnel with the potential to fill future leadership positions. Two of its bright young prospects are enrolled on the new BTEC Diploma in Manufacturing Engineering at Bradford College, while the company is currently training a cohort of three apprentices and maintains an in-house programme of skills training and career development.

But Debbie Mellor, MD of Keighley Labs and one of relatively few female chief executives in the engineering industry, is concerned that today’s young men and women, and their families, believe that university is the only career path open to them. Yet vocational training like an engineering apprenticeship still leads to a qualification, involves hands-on learning that suits many people better and results in a real job, with established career prospects.

“According to a recent report, an estimated 55% of this year’s university graduates will fail to land a job that requires a degree, becoming either under-employed or unemployed. So with increased course fees and students running up debts of up to £27,000, many young people will now be wondering whether it’s worthwhile going to university,” says Debbie. “Whereas with an apprenticeship or a BTEC diploma course, you learn while you earn and have the opportunity to study for a foundation degree or higher qualification, as your career progresses.

“Apprenticeships is also an area of education and training that has not been affected by budget cuts, with the Government pledging to create 75,000 new places over the next three years and Skills Minister, John Hayes, even considering the option of being able to study apprenticeships at university, to improve the status of vocational training,” she adds.

Debbie is an enthusiastic supporter of the new BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Manufacturing Engineering, being delivered by the largest provider of higher education outside the university sector, Bradford College. Redesigned in collaboration with members of the Contract Heat Treatment Association and revised to fit the new Qualifications & Credit Framework, which cumulatively awards credits for individual learning units, the course now includes modules relevant to metallurgy and heat treatment, including the structure and properties of metals, mechanical and thermal treatment, and metallurgical techniques. Keighley Labs has enrolled one trainee from Induction Hardening and another from its Inspection department on the 2-year programme, in the pilot intake of a dozen sponsored students, and expects to fund another two people each year.

Although some of the thermal heat treatment processes are still physically demanding, Keighley Laboratories’ work involves a growing number of high technology roles that would appeal to today’s computer generation. These include the application of spectroscopy to the analysis of metal components, the use of metallographic microscopes for examining the microstructure of specimens, the programming of PLC-controlled furnace processing routines, the skilled operation of non-destructive testing and inspection instruments and, when the new factory building comes on stream, the introduction of ‘cleaner’ heat treatment processes.

A recent study found that 56% of teachers said their knowledge of apprenticeships is poor and Debbie Mellor is worried that schools are pushing their students toward university education, because they are not aware of vocational training opportunities. She is also dismayed by the Government’s recent decision to downgrade the Diploma in Engineering from its current value of five GCSE’s to just one, undermining industry efforts to create a new generation of apprentices and technicians. She joins leading industry names in calling for more effort to be put into developing appropriate technical training and promoting the engineering profession more effectively.

When its new production facility is up and running and the company can present a more modern face to young visitors, Keighley Labs hopes to continue arranging familiarisation trips for schools across the region, aiming particularly at 13-14 year olds who have yet to commit fully to university. In this way, it hopes to put forward the learning and career prospects of apprenticeships to undecided youngsters.

“Work-based training is a viable option for young people to consider,” says Debbie. “Getting into employment earlier, not running up student debts and earning proper money, means young apprentices definitely have an edge. They also have an opportunity to go on and gain a diploma or degree, at the expense of the employer.

“Since we work with advanced industries like aerospace, automotive, energy, defence and petrochemicals, Keighley Labs and the heat treatment sector generally need the skilled technicians, metallurgists and managers of tomorrow and can offer properly-defined career paths,” she concludes. “Nowadays, apprenticeships are not about training people to do a single job for life, they are about unlocking their full personal potential. After all, I started as an office junior and progressed to become Managing Director.”

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David Gent
David Gent Creative
PO Box 30

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Paul Champion

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