A Wearside storage vessel maker has urged employers and the Government to tackle a manufacturing skills shortage by continuing to invest in adult apprenticeships.
Wessington Cryogenics, which has 15 apprentices on its books including nine over the age of 24, has called on ministers to retain funding to upskill older workers and keep companies competitive.
The Houghton-le-Spring-based firm has teamed up with Gateshead College to develop a bespoke apprenticeship in Performing Engineering Operations (PEO) – a move which aims to fast-track the development of staff aged 25 and over.
The first to graduate from the scheme is Simon Bowman, who recently completed the PEO programme and an in-house traineeship programme and is now qualified as a time-served welder and fabricator.
The 25 year-old from Prudhoe joined Wessington seven years ago as an assistant technician but found he didn’t have the skills needed to carry out tasks other than basic assembly work.
He said: “I was a bit disillusioned with things because I felt my career wasn’t moving forward and I’d become stuck in a rut. Now I’ve got all of the necessary codes and qualifications to work on a range of welding and fabrication jobs.
“My job is much more interesting now, to be honest, and my training has led to a promotion and a good pay rise.”
Simon is not the only beneficiary of the scheme, which is aimed predominantly at the over-24s but is open to Wessington staff of all ages. Five other workers (including two in their 50s) are currently enrolled on the apprenticeship, which equips them with essential knowledge of fabrication, welding and machining techniques and health and safety practices.
The scheme follows a successful campaign by Wessington, which makes low-temperature storage vessels for the oil, gas and bio-medical sectors, to lobby for more Government funding to upskill learners over 24. Wessington’s director, Gill Southern, sits on the board of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and actively drummed up support for the campaign. Thanks to the efforts of Gill and other employers, the Government has pledged to maintain funding for the over-24s.
She said: “The manufacturing skills gap won’t be bridged purely by apprenticeships for the under-25s, although this is still important. What we need is a blended approach that includes more apprenticeships for people over 24. We lobbied extensively for the retention of funding for this age group and I’m glad to say that the Government has listened to us. Skills development for the over-24s is still available for companies that need it.
“Apprentices of all ages can add value to a business and this is illustrated by our partnership with Gateshead College. The PEO apprenticeship allows a lost generation of twenty-somethings who were never offered apprenticeships to become time-served tradesmen or women. It also means that older workers who already have a trade – in joinery, for example – can gain transferable skills that enable them to carry out high-quality welding and fabrication work within our business.
“I’d encourage other employers to partner with local colleges to produce bespoke training packages similar to the one we’ve established with Gateshead College. It has enabled us to become much more flexible, agile and productive as a business.”
The Wessington staff on the PEO apprenticeship spend one day a week at the college’s Team Valley-based Skills Academy for Automotive, Engineering, Manufacturing and Logistics, which has a dedicated welding workshop, spray booths and specialist diagnostic and testing equipment.
Mick Brophy, managing director of business, innovation and development at Gateshead College, said: “The academy is an important part of the vocational training infrastructure of the North East. It’s important that students of all ages have access to this type of facility, particularly in the manufacturing and engineering industries which suffer from major skills shortages.”
Four out of five manufacturers are experiencing recruitment difficulties and two thirds of those say this is because candidates lack technical skills, according to a recent study by trade body EEF. This means that companies have to invest large sums of money to train staff to the required standard.
Gill Southern said: “Now that the Government is retaining funding for post-24 training, hopefully this will encourage more employers – especially those which suffer from skills shortages – to invest in apprenticeships. They are good for employers and good for employees.
“By adding additional challenge and enjoyment to the jobs of existing employees, loyalty to North East employers should increase and there should be less churn, whereby critical welding and fabricating skills could be lost to other regions.”
For further information on Gateshead College apprenticeships, call 0191 490 4636, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.gateshead.ac.uk.