Investing in next generation engineers

10 November 2009

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, oil and gas industry professionals were characterised by their youth, vigour and hunger to succeed. The industry acted as a honey pot to the brightest and hardest working people of the generation, many of whom have dedicated their entire career to oil and gas.

Ben Knott is two years into his apprenticeship at Severn Unival
Ben Knott is two years into his apprenticeship at Severn Unival

As the bright young things from the 70s and 80s begin to consider retirement, it is no secret that there is a potential skill shortage facing the industry. Severn Unival, a valve engineering firm with a strong heritage in oil and gas, is tackling this issue head-on by taking a planned approach to its investment in young talent. Executive director Colin Findlay believes that a collaborative approach across the industry – involving niche engineering firms as well as the bigger players – is what’s needed to stave off the skill shortage.

“We need to take strong, decisive measures now to secure the industry for the next decade and beyond,” he explains. “This means promoting the industry to young people at key stages of their education, and it also requires canny investment in quality training that gives recruits the depth and breadth of skills to underpin a successful career.”

Severn Unival currently has 20 employees aged 25 and under who are working towards, or have recently completed, an advanced modern apprenticeship in Mechanical and Maintenance Engineering. Ben Knott is two years into his apprenticeship. He left school at the age of 18 with A-Levels in Sport, History and Sociology, and he admits that the syllabus was daunting at first: “I remember looking at the things we were expected to have learnt by the time we finished the apprenticeship and thinking ‘I can’t do that!’. There was so much maths and physics involved. But once you’re learning on the job, even the most challenging areas fall into place. I get a lot of support, both at college and from my colleagues, and now I enjoy the more difficult aspects of my work, because it’s so satisfying once you master them.”

The apprenticeship usually takes around three and a half years, and it is highly structured to ensure that people completing it develop the necessary skills to meet industry standards. Ben currently spends four days per week at Severn Unvial and one day at college, and he finds that this strikes the right balance between practical work and desk-based learning. Many people taking on their first fulltime job discover there is a steep learning curve. This is especially apparent in engineering where the nature of the work and the environment are so different to that experienced during education. Ben finds that the day he spends at college once a week provides a useful opportunity to share experiences with other apprentices and to consolidate his newly acquired skills and knowledge.

“When I finished my A-Levels, I really wanted to continue learning, but I didn’t feel that fulltime education was for me,” he explains. “Doing an apprenticeship I get the best of both worlds - studying and earning a living at the same time. I get the time and space to focus on the more challenging areas of my job, and I also get to apply my learning in the workplace while it is still fresh. There is a real sense of camaraderie at college, as well as some healthy competition when it comes to the end of term exams.”

Like most apprentices, Ben spends time working in different departments so that he can build up a good skill set. Initially he worked on the shop floor preparing valve components for build and painting. At the moment he’s working on valve refurbishment and servicing, and he’s looking forward to next year’s shutdown season, by which time he should have completed his apprenticeship and be ready to work onsite at client locations with a team of engineers.

“I am really excited about moving on to the next stage in my career,” he says. “When I talk to colleagues who finished their apprenticeships a year or two ago, their work sounds so interesting and varied. Hearing about how they have progressed motivates me and reminds me that choosing to do an apprenticeship with Severn Unival was a great career move.”

Research carried out by the Learning and Skills Council indicates that 88 per cent of employers find that apprenticeships lead to a more satisfied and motivated workforce. Colin Findlay echoes this, and he believes the enthusiasm of apprentices has a ripple effect across the whole organisation: “It’s wonderful to watch young people acquiring skills and building their confidence, and it ensures the rest of us continually see things afresh as well.”

Ben hadn’t considered a career in engineering before he was 18. Taken at face-value, his choice of A-Levels wouldn’t have necessarily made him a natural choice for an engineering firm. However, Colin believes employers should focus on the attitude and aptitude of potential apprentices more than their educational background and achievements. “Ben believes that earning and learning via an apprenticeship is a win-win situation,” Colin concludes. “But the truth is that apprentices create a win-win situation for employers too. They help to re-energise our existing workforce, and by and large they develop into loyal, motivated employees who remain with the company long after completing their apprenticeship.”

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