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Apprenticeships or ‘a training industry’? - is it all about numbers?

03 August 2016

Flame Hardeners’ Managing Director, Roger Haw gives an overview of the training available for specialist sectors of the engineering industry.

The life of every engineered product has three different stages, in the following order – Creation, Innovation, and Manufacture. The common denominator between them is people, with companies large and small continuously monitoring their labour requirements and developing the required skills within their organisations to ensure they maintain their ability to both meet customer requirements and penetrate further markets.

The development of any product involves many stages between concept and production. Once the product has been designed, materials are selected, and the manufacturing route is detailed. And the process is reiterative: revised materials are assessed, production techniques are improved, and material properties are enhanced.

The majority of components will require some heat treatment, either to enhance their strength, improve their fatigue resistance, or to improve their wear resistance.

Heat treatment is a very specialised branch of metallurgy, employing personnel with above average training and experience. Such people need to have expert knowledge of materials, knowledge of engineering manufacturing techniques, and understanding of the resulting effects of applied loads on component performance. Most of all, they must have the ability to produce and control the treatments required. 

The dilemma is that a mixture of practical and theoretical training is required for those seeking a career in this specialist branch of engineering, and yet most modern academic courses at undergraduate level spend less than half a day of an academic year covering this topic.

The ‘apprenticeship route’ does offer some BTEC modules for heat treatment and also some courses for ‘heat treatment operators’. In addition, it is possible to construct an NVQ around the workplace activities, and Flame Hardeners has in the past co-operated with a local training provider to qualify an employee with an NVQ in Flame & Induction Hardening. 

Together with six of its competitors, it also persuaded a college to run a two year BTEC course with a substantial metallurgical content. However, it was not possible to run this course over successive years, since the numbers involved were small.

The responsibility, therefore, falls to individual companies to develop potential technicians and managers, after they have followed the basic apprenticeship routes, which have only a small metallurgical input.

Roger Haw recently attended the AGM of a long-established trade association at which the guest speaker was the Head of Training at a respected training centre. A question from the floor was, “Do you provide any courses that include heat treatment?” The answer was, “No”, with further explanation that “it is all about the numbers”. An intake of apprentices for engineering might be as large as 80 and, of those, not one might be a would-be heat treatment metallurgist.

It could be argued that the enthusiasm for the term ‘apprenticeship’, as used by politicians of all persuasions, has created a new industry. The Training Industry is now with us and most of the training providers obtain their funding from the Government – or, to be more precise, the taxpayer.  (It has to be acknowledged, however, that the better of the training organisations do have modern facilities and enjoy some sponsorship from local employers as well as support from the taxpayer.)

Hardly a week goes by without people receiving an e-mail or flyer from a training provider, extolling the virtues of their ‘apprentices’ and asking if companies would like an apprentice hairdresser, a commercial apprentice, a sales and marketing apprentice – sometimes even an engineering apprentice.

The truth is that these young people are not apprentices, they are trainees on a training scheme, and while there is much to commend the fact that they are undergoing training in pursuit of a worthwhile career, they are proof that it is all about the numbers. The training providers will not organise a course for a small number of specialists. 

Would it not be better use of the taxpayers’ money that has been budgeted for training, if some of it was spent on helping small specialist areas of technology to develop their staff in order to stay ahead of the world?

Haw’s conclusion is that, over the last ten years, we have created a training industry where numbers do count but, as always, the big numbers regularly over-ride the smaller numbers. The more specialist smaller parts of the engineering industry, therefore, are forced to continue providing training and development of people in-house and incorporate this cost into the price of their services. To counter-balance the argument, however, the single overlooked advantage of this situation is that it tends to stimulate promotion from within, which is always a major contributing factor to the creation of a happy working environment.


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