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  1. Spotlight on Policy
2 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:54pm

Genuine career opportunities for everyone

Apprenticeships offer a vital route to social mobility, inclusion and solving the UK’s skills shortage, writes the chief technology officer at BAE Systems.

By Nigel Whitehead

Recently I appeared in front of the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee alongside counterparts from Siemens and Rolls-Royce as part of a session on higher, further and technical education. As representatives of some of the UK’s largest engineering companies we were not hesitant in expressing our concerns about the lack of young people with technical skills in the UK and the potential impact this has not just on the large companies, but especially the thousands of smaller and medium-sized engineering firms in our supply chains.

As an ex-apprentice, a chartered engineer, and now a leader responsible for engineering and technology in an 83,000-strong engineering company, I have been involved for more than 20 years now in these sorts of discussions. Sadly the UK is still struggling to deliver widespread solutions to the problem.

When you see how the apprentice schemes of larger engineering companies successfully introduce school leavers into the workplace, and then see those same people thrive in their careers, it is easy to form strong convictions about the value of such an approach. I also conclude that apprenticeships provide a vector for social mobility for thousands of young people. I have strived to work with many organisations in the private and public sector, including successive governments, in changing the perception of apprenticeships, encouraging businesses to increase the number of apprenticeships and to develop training.

Indeed my view that apprenticeships are a vital mechanism for promoting social mobility has been further evidenced by concerns expressed by many young people with respect to the debt they face upon leaving university. Increasingly apprenticeships offer paid-for training to degree level and beyond. My own company, for example, has recently joined with Cranfield University to offer an engineering apprenticeship with a Masters-level qualification – the first of its type in the country. Of the 650 apprentice places we have available this year, 120 offer study to post-graduate level and another 100 will take undergraduate degrees as part of degree apprenticeships.

My argument has been reinforced by BAE Systems’ and many other businesses’ involvement in the Movement to Work programme. This scheme provides a one-month development programme, including a two-week work placement with companies, for young unemployed people who have fallen out of the education system for a variety of reasons. Despite some initial scepticism about the likely success of the programme, the overwhelming majority of young people joining us on work experience have been exemplary and as a result we have to date offered jobs to 79 participants as apprentices with BAE Systems. This year BAE plans to provide 240 placements, and we have encouraged another 45 employers to join the programme.

I have also sought to ensure that my company’s apprentice programmes are open to all. Of the apprentices we recruited last year 27 per cent were female and 18 per cent of recruits in 2016 came from the most economically deprived areas in England. This reflects broader efforts we’re making to ensure BAE Systems is an inclusive workplace for everyone. In recent years employees have created a number of employee groups, including Enabled, which aims to support people with disabilities, and OutLinkUK, a resource for LGBT staff.

I am a great believer in providing equality of opportunity. For me, apprenticeships offer the very best way to develop the talent inherent in our young people.

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