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4 minute read

Opinion: Master or Apprentice?

Professor Raj Roy is the Director of Manufacturing and Director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Through-life Engineering Services at Cranfield University. Here he discusses the options available to manufacturers following the apprenticeships levy and how manufacturing firms can generate real value for their business.

At first glance, the apprenticeships levy for large employers (being introduced from April 2017) only looks important for traditional ‘apprentices’ coming into manufacturers for entry level training.

But the implications are more far-reaching – maybe transformational when it comes to L&D budgets – and have a particular importance for more experienced staff.

The levy means employers are going to need to re-direct L&D cash for all levels into apprenticeships in order to recoup the levy spend – or be in a position to take advantage of the 90% subsidy – and that means re-thinking training at all levels and where ROI can be maximised.

There are believed to be around 4,000 postgraduate engineers currently graduating each year – which is unlikely to meet the needs of the industry as we go forward. The nature of the apprenticeship, employer-led but with a backbone of academic rigour and quality assurance from Higher Education, is ideal for moving experienced generalists into specialists addressing specific business challenges. It’s the postgraduate engineers who will develop solutions to engineering problems using new or existing technologies, through innovation, creativity and change; they will manage teams and budgets and become the new leaders.

There is a real chance for manufacturers to generate value from their levy with staff of all ages / Picture: Getty/iStock

The real impact for the UK, and the real chance for manufacturing firms to generate value from their levy, will come from the opportunity it offers for both talent development in the existing workforce and attracting more graduate entrants. The ability to provide ‘apprentices’ at Master’s degree level (level 7) will enable companies to fill chronic skills gaps in middle and senior management, and in senior technical positions, through both recruitment and upskilling. In our sector that means developing and applying skills needed for implementing 4.0 models: the skills in autonomous systems, smart use of sensors, big data and the Internet of Things.

All good in principle. In practice there’s a barrier in terms of language and perceptions around the whole idea of an apprenticeship and who it’s for. Firms needs to think about how best to introduce the higher level apprenticeship offering and how to couch the wording. Find ways to clearly associate the opportunity with existing senior-level development, and make sure its status is understood organisation-wide; link the apprenticeship programme to specific and high-profile organisational change initiatives – stressing that anyone involved has a central role in shaping future success.

At Cranfield we’re using the concept of ‘Mastership’ as an alternative branding for positioning the level 7 offering. We’ve also made a commitment to making the level 7 apprenticeship experience the same as that for any other postgraduate participating in executive-style education, the same admissions process and equivalent requirements in terms of qualifications and/ or experience.

Linking apprenticeships to postgraduate education brings a sudden change in status. It has the potential to bring the UK more in line with Germany, which has benefited from its greater appreciation of the value of high-level and specialist vocational education. In Germany, the technical or vocational route is at least as prestigious as the traditional route through university to employment.

The main benefit from the model is the level of employer control, the ability to leverage higher-level study in the specific terms of someone’s actual day job, ensuring learning is applied immediately for maximum impact in the organisation. Under the first level 7 programme in Systems Engineering, for example, 60% of the time spent by employees is on work-related projects and activity, 40% on the academic content. The industry-agreed standards provide a framework of core skills, knowledge and behaviours necessary for performing a range of career roles to a high level – and within the context of their organisation. In other words, employers retain control. Organisations are able to leverage higher-level study in the specific terms of someone’s actual day job or future day job.

This kind of higher level apprenticeship also signals a strong two-way commitment which will be important in terms of linking L&D with employee engagement. The employer invests in an employees future, equipping them with necessary skills and knowledge to a very high level. The employee will, in principle, therefore have a very specific value in terms of what they bring to their role, have important experience from addressing current organisational challenges through project work, and have high potential for progression.

Prof. Raj Roy / Picture: Cranfield University

Employers within a sector work together to agree a ‘standard’ for skills and behaviour needed for a particular role, approve this with the Government’s Institute for Apprenticeships, and appoint a programme provider as a partner. The manufacturing team at Cranfield has been working with industry as part of ‘Trailblazer’ groups, made up of a minimum of 10 companies with an identified skills need, to develop new apprenticeship standards and assessment. For example, one Trailblazer Group is addressing the breadth of engineering across multiple sectors setting out the competencies required to comply with the Engineering Council. The group includes BAeSystems, Airbus, Rolls Royce, Leonardo, and MBDA, working alongside professional associations like the IET, IMechE and RAe.

Approaches adopted by Trailblazers vary, one approach is where core competencies are common across a range of disciplines and job specific ‘skills, knowledge and behaviours’ are added; another approach is where a standard is developed for a specific role. Upon approval from the Institute for Apprenticeships the standard will be assigned a funding band in the range £1,500 to £27,000; the majority of the Level 7 standards fall into Band 15 the highest of the funding bands. The group then continues on to develop assessment plans.

For enquiries about collaboration with Cranfield over Masterships and involvement in a Trailblazer Group, contact Matthew Caffrey at