After years of rising youth unemployment there was a fall reported by the Government yesterday. The value of apprenticeships is one of the reasons the tide is changing and finally helping to fill a skills gap that has troubled the North East’s engineers for more than a decade, writes IAIN Iain Laing.
THERE may be fewer smoke stacks and cranes piercing the skyline of Tyneside, but engineering is just as big business as ever.
And yet, while North East industry is concerned that its growth may be hampered by a lack of skilled staff, there are still nearly a million young people out of work in the North East.
The fall in the number of school and college leavers looking for jobs in engineering has risen over the last 20 years as they think secure, interesting work is scarce in a declining industry and they head for what they see as more glamorous and lucrative fields – a path which often leads to disappointment.
Newcastle-based British Engines, which employs around 1,000 people, mainly in the North East, is one of many successful manufacturers which rely on bringing in apprentices.
The company, which works in a number of engineering sectors including the fast-growing oil and gas business, this year reported a rise in annual turnover from £97.3m to £109.5m. Pre-tax profits rose from £7.5m to £9m.
Around a quarter of its new staff are apprentices, and 25 are starting their training this autumn, some of them through its own new academy.
Ray Couch, human resources and training manager for British Engines Group, said: “We welcome the Government’s focus on apprenticeships as the level of youth unemployment remains very high. It helps industry to deal with the skills shortage and gives people the chance to get a job in the North East. We are able to develop the company only with the right skills, and bringing in apprenticeships is the way we have chosen to do this for decades.
“We have to have skilled people in our workforce if we are going to grow. There has been a significant skills shortage in the North East’s engineering sector for some years. Apprenticeships are the best way to fill it.
“Engineering as a career has been viewed differently over the last 10 to 15 years. Some people think engineering has disappeared from the region with the closure of shipyards and disappearance of well-known names in a changing industrial structure. But it has not. It is as big a part of the region’s economy as it always has been. This is still one of the best engineering centres in the world.”
The firm is working with its training partner, Gateshead-based TDR, to work with schools to encourage more youngsters back into industry, and they are succeeding.
Couch added: “There’s been a tendency for students in schools to ignore engineering and science subjects. They see engineering as being grimy and repetitive but that’s not the case. It is a career that can cover design, project management, meeting customers and working out how to solve the problems in their business.
“It is a business which has a future and can offer well-paid secure job opportunities with career progression, challenging work and travel – much more so than jobs that appear more glamorous.
“When they come through training there are a lot of opportunities for them in design, production, or project management roles. Many of our senior managers started as apprentices. Most of our apprentices stay here if they want to and meet the standards.”