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An apprenticeship programme can help to combat skills shortages and raise diversity Mike Haigh

A young person can use an apprenticeship as a foundation to rise to the top of their profession – one of the key themes of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week – and I work with colleagues who did exactly that.

Three of Mott MacDonald’s senior business leaders started out as apprentices. Other high-profile figures in the sector – Simon Kirby, chief executive of High Speed Two (HS2), to name just one ­– are former apprentices.

Apprenticeships are an excellent start to a career, providing opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds to discover their potential. They also have a role to play in addressing chronic skills shortages.

In engineering it has always been a challenge to attract enough talent. But if we are truly embarking on a period of major infrastructure construction in this country, not to say around the world, then we have to find new ways of attracting more people into the industry.

The traditional route into our business of three to four years of full-time academic-based learning at university is not for everybody. The cost of a degree and worries about getting into debt also deter many capable students. Apprenticeships are a genuine alternative.

Go back a few years and there were no recognised engineering consultancy apprenticeships. Then in 2010 Mott MacDonald established the Technician Apprenticeship Consortium to plan and deliver an advanced technician apprenticeship in civil engineering. Today this forms part of our apprenticeship programme, along with equivalent schemes for building services engineering, highways engineering and quantity surveying.

Completion of the on-the-job training and classroom studies will lead to industry recognised qualifications and the opportunity to apply for engineering technician status with the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

We currently have 64 apprentices and recruit between 30 and 40 a year. From the age of 16, they will work on fee-earning projects, for clients around the world as well as in the UK. They will work alongside some of our most senior and qualified people, learning fundamental workplace skills and gaining valuable experience of real-life situations.

Apprenticeships will also help our profession to become more diverse, and there is a strong business case for greater diversity. Engineering is basically all about solving problems and there have been several studies that demonstrate the more diverse your employees are, the more creative they will be at solving problems. We want our people to think in different ways. Diversity makes for a more creative, more productive working environment.

This is why it is so important that the industry continues to work with schools to encourage more girls and pupils from black and minority ethnic groups to study STEM subjects. We also need to reach out to young people living in socially disadvantaged communities: it has been shown that the take-up of STEM subjects is lower at schools in poorer catchment areas.

Many of our apprentices act as STEM ambassadors and regularly visit schools to share their experiences and promote engineering as an exciting and rewarding career. During National Apprenticeship Week our people will be at The Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair in Birmingham, the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK.

For me this demonstrates that we support apprenticeships not just because they benefit the business, but because of the wider societal benefits ­– promoting inclusion and social mobility. After all, many of us entered the engineering profession in the first place because we wanted to do the right thing for society. I know this is what motivates me when I give talks to schools and universities.

This year we joined The 5% Club, a campaign to drive up the recruitment of apprentices, trainees and graduates by British businesses, because we recognise that bringing on young people to become the professionals of the future is both a business and social imperative. Besides apprenticeships and graduate schemes, we run other training programmes for young people: our railway signalling unit in York, for example, trains school leavers in-house to become professionally qualified (IRSE) signal engineers.

We remain committed to using apprenticeships as a learning pathway, along with other routes, to address skills gaps and promote diversity. They benefit business, society and not least the individual.

We have seen that an apprenticeship can take you anywhere. Once completed, you can rapidly climb the career ladder and the world is your oyster. I wonder how many of our current apprentices are future managing directors in the making?

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