MK College’s tailor made apprentice’s set for high-powered future

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“Fings ain’t what they used to be.”

Remember when being an apprentice meant sweeping floors, making tea and enduring ritual humiliation for five years? The demise of apprenticeship schemes is often held up as a key factor in the decline of British industry.

The funny thing is, they never actually went away, and the up-to-date versions of apprenticeships are allowing employers to create ‘designer employees,’ carefully shaped and groomed to be a round peg in a perfectly circular hole.

Milton Keynes College provides apprenticeship schemes to businesses across the city from one man bands all the way up to multinational corporations including Red Bull Technology. About five hundred students are apprentices learning through the College at any one time.

Lindsey Styles, the college’s director of curriculum, said: “We have an excellent track record with apprenticeships here.

“We are a very big provider and we’ve been doing this for a very long time. We have a high quality threshold in that we concentrate on schemes with a high content of solid skills and real educational worth.

“Our apprenticeships are very thorough and many of the assessors who deliver them are actually former apprentices themselves so they really have a deep understanding of what’s needed.”

It would seem there is no ‘standard’ form for the schemes. Some can be full-time in the workplace while others might involve a week here and there in college or the traditional day-release model.

There are hundreds of different frameworks around which courses can be tailored taking in everything from hairdressing or beauty through to robotics or becoming a legal executive.

“It’s also very dangerous to make assumptions about some of these schemes just because of their title,” Lindsey says.

“For example a beauty course may well include elements of anatomy or physiology; it’s all a question of what the employer needs.”

Therein lies the essence of what apprenticeships are designed to do. They are tailored to meet the needs of the company which is taking on the apprentice. They can last anything from one to four years and can be equivalent to GCSEs, A-Levels, HND or undergraduate university level, all according to an employer’s requirements.

Lindsey added: “Businesses can come to us and say, ‘We need someone who can do x, y and z,’ and we start with the apprenticeship framework which most closely suits their needs and then add and subtract other elements as appropriate to what they are looking for.

“You could almost say no two apprenticeships will be exactly the same, because they are so closely tailored to individual employers and candidates.”

Similarly, some schemes are significantly more academic than others, while some are almost entirely practical. Many tend to include elements of Mathematics and English, but there will always be a significant element of workplace-specific technical competencies.

“These apprenticeships can lead to some fantastic jobs, dream jobs for some people.

“When Red Bull Racing advertised for ten three year apprenticeships as trainee race engineers we had more than six hundred applicants. Similarly, we’ve recently started schemes for legal executives and paralegals.

“Likewise, the Foreign Office regularly takes on engineering and electrical apprentices for example. They’ve trained up 340 apprentices in the last forty years, many of whom have gone on to have varied and exciting careers supporting diplomatic missions all over the world.

“These are potentially high-powered jobs, serious careers, all starting with an apprenticeship.”

Generally an apprenticeship scheme comes into being because an employer has recognised a gap in the skills of their team, or has struggled to recruit suitably qualified staff. They and the college between them create a course picking and mixing parts from existing frameworks and if necessary designing new ones to complement them.

While most apprentices are in the traditional 16 to 24 age group they are open to all ages and some, like those run by the Foreign Office, are routinely taken by older people. Up to the age of 24 there is partial government funding available with employers contributing about a thousand pounds a year.

For under-19s the full cost is met by the state and apprentices are paid the minimum wage or above.

Any company can apply to have an apprentice regardless of their sector or size and Lindsey says they are always happy to hear from businesses who might be interested and to explain what is available.

She said: “Apart from anything else we can explain to them the kind of grants they can apply for. Smaller businesses in particular often don’t have much of a training budget to speak of so we can point them towards government help.

“What is really rewarding is when we build long-term relationships with businesses whose managers come to trust us to provide them with precisely the staff they need. For example in the accountancy sector we have a number of companies which have apprentices with us where the boss started life as an apprentice here too.”

She added that companies sometimes fear they will be forced to continue employing an apprentice when their training has finished, even if they have no job for them, but that this is simply not true.

“The employer’s commitment ends when the apprenticeship ends so there is really no risk involved at all. Of course it’s very satisfying to see that the vast majority are kept on because they’ve learned to be productive members of the team, which is after all what it’s all about.”

Once qualified, the apprentice will have learnt real skills and competences. They may not be too expert at sweeping floors or making tea, but they will have been taught lessons of far greater value to the people who employ them.

For more information visit the apprenticeships section of the college’s website