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Choosing the right path into engineering

21 September 2017

When choosing a career, it's important to carefully consider all available options and to gain a clear understanding of where each route could lead. Here, Simon Biggs, Education Outreach Executive at global engineering company, Renishaw, explains why young people no longer have to choose between an engineering apprenticeship and University.

For some careers the path is clear, for example to become a doctor, dentist or vet; the only routes to these professions is by obtaining a degree in the subject. In the engineering industry, there is a long-standing debate between the two career paths – apprenticeships and university. Young people must weigh up the options available to them to choose the most suitable route.

Engineering careers

It is important to encourage young people to choose engineering careers as in the UK, there is a shortage of skilled entrants entering the sector. The UK requires 265,000 skilled entrants a year and there is currently a shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates. Worryingly, around 32 per cent of employers in the sector struggle to recruit experienced engineers and scientists.

A report conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering found that only 37 per cent of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teachers felt confident giving students engineering career advice. Careers advice can help pupils to make the right decisions on which path would best suit them.

Engineering companies can work with schools to promote the opportunities and pathways into the sector, helping overcome the knowledge gap among teachers. When joining the industry, the most common pathways are via apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships, graduate programmes or graduate programmes with an industrial sandwich year. 

Pathways to engineering

An engineering apprenticeship combines work with study, whereas a degree focuses entirely on studying the subject. Currently, around 14,000 students enter engineering degrees each year, but the number of apprentices is rapidly on the rise.

The number of apprenticeships being offered has increased over the last few years, possibly in line with increases to tuition fees. Apprentices offer a great deal of value to a business as well as helping to bridge the skills gap. Despite their immense value, there is still a perception that apprenticeships are a lesser alternative to university.

“I've definitely noticed a bias against apprenticeships,” explained Lucy Ackland, Senior Development Engineer and former apprentice at Renishaw. “Parents and teachers can have negative opinions of apprenticeships or see them as the poor relative of a university degree. We need to change the stereotypes and challenge preconceived ideas to show that apprenticeships really do lead to success.”

The government is working to address this, increasing its focus on apprenticeships and creating new apprenticeship roles, including degree level apprenticeships, where employees will work alongside their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees.

Perceptions of apprenticeships are slowly on the rise and it is now much easier to attract good quality candidates. However, there's still a long way to go before apprenticeships are valued as the equal of the traditional academic route to degree-level qualification.

A route to higher education

For engineering companies, apprentices are one of the key ways of recruiting staff, including future managers or directors, as they have been trained internally to possess all the skills needed for the business. Renishaw's Manufacturing Director, Gareth Hankins, started at Renishaw as an apprentice aged just 16 and progressed throughout his career. According to the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, around 90 per cent of apprentices stay employed after completing the programme, which demonstrates how successful it is as a route into employment.

What some people don't realise, is that many engineering apprenticeship schemes offer the chance to study for a degree as part of the programme or on completion of the apprenticeship. In fact, in the past three years, over 56,000 people have started a higher or degree-level apprenticeship, which leads to a full university honours degree without student debt. This gives apprentices the benefit of learning from hands-on projects alongside colleagues at all levels of the business, as well as time improving their academic skills by attending university part-time.

At Renishaw, around 70 per cent of our apprentices go on to do an honours degree. Recently, we have also started offering degree-level apprenticeships in software engineering and embedded electronics.

The degree-level software apprenticeship offers young people the chance to achieve a BSc honours degree in Systems Engineering over three to five years. The course covers an interesting mix of software, electronics and mechatronics – all while gaining experience at the company.

The apprentices that join Renishaw's Gloucestershire operations on the Manufacturing Engineering or Technical Engineering schemes attend Gloucestershire Engineering Training full time for the first year of their apprenticeship, before rotating through six-month placements in the business. In year three, study towards the two year Higher National Certificate commences. There is also a possibility of studying for a Higher National Diploma and later on an honours degree in engineering.

Apprentices can contextualise their studies by applying their project-specific knowledge to a practical environment. They also benefit from the ability to move between departments, broadening their skill set before specialising in one career path. Because the scheme has been designed by industry for industry, apprentices can be sure they have developed the right skills to be successful. Many apprenticeship schemes are designed to develop and produce the highly skilled managers and leaders of the future.

“I applied to university after completing my A levels,” explained Roxanne Pollard, Mechanical Design Engineer and former apprentice at Renishaw. “I wasn't sure it was the right pathway for me and when I discovered the apprenticeship I knew it was the type of work I wanted to be doing. Six out of ten of the apprentices that joined when I did have now achieved full honours degrees. We've gained practical experience and on the job training and are also up-to-date academically.”

We've seen first-hand that apprenticeships can lead to great things. At Renishaw, there are several award-winning apprentices and former apprentices, including Lucy Ackland who was selected as one of the UK's top 50 Women in Engineering by the Daily Telegraph. Ackland joined Renishaw aged 16 and went on to achieve a first-class honours degree in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, while working on engineering projects in-house.

Apprenticeship schemes mean students can obtain their degree while gaining experience, developing the skills that employers require in the face of the skills gap. An apprenticeship is more than just a route into employment, it can be a route into further education alongside training and building transferrable skills.

For more information on Renishaw's apprenticeships visit www.renishaw.com/apprenticeships

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