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Apprenticeships matter. They are important to so many for a variety of reasons. As the University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre celebrates its milestone tenth  year, we speak to apprentices past and present, the tutors who teach/train them, and the employers who support them to find out what apprenticeships mean to them.  

Article featured in the latest issue of the AMRC Journal.

‘Being brave’, ‘having a sense of pride’, ‘making life-altering moments’ and ‘helping to secure South Yorkshire’s industrial heritage’, are just some of the ways in which people talk about the AMRC Training Centre. 

It has a lot to be proud of as it marks its tenth year – delivering more than 1,700 apprenticeships, working with more than 400 different businesses, big and small – as well as bringing additional educational opportunities into a region with areas of deprivation. 

The building in Rotherham, which opened on October 7, 2013, sits on the former Orgreave Colliery and Coking works –  a gateway to the Waverley residential community that sits alongside the thriving Advanced Manufacturing Park, just metres away. 

And the AMRC Training Centre’s success story and the lives transformed, show no signs of slowing.

Apprentices past and present, are the ones to watch in the future. It is they who will be part of finding the solutions to tomorrow’s problems.

Alumni apprentice Bethany Cousins was part of the first cohort of students to undertake an apprenticeship at the AMRC Training Centre, aged 18. Starting with her advanced apprenticeship,  Beth went on to complete a degree apprenticeship, both in manufacturing engineering. Completing her degree in 2019 with first-class honours, she has since described the moment as one of her career highlights.

During the past ten years, Beth, now 28, has won awards both locally and regionally for being a role model for young engineers and remains a beacon of encouragement for women thinking about a career in engineering. 

“My apprenticeship at the AMRC Training Centre paved the way to my career, I wouldn’t have got both the practical and theoretical experience in any other way,” added Beth, who works as a manufacturing engineer at the neighbouring University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). 

“I enjoyed meeting other apprentices, especially those who were based in other companies. It enabled me to hear about how others applied the theory and perhaps did things a little differently, it was a great additional learning experience. 

“South Yorkshire sits in a heavy manufacturing-based area and it’s fantastic to have the AMRC Training Centre sit in-between, having my place of work next door really helped in getting that hands-on experience, and enabled me to network with key industry contacts I would keep for years to come.” 

Along with Beth, Josh Woodward, 20, also works at the AMRC and started his apprenticeship at the AMRC Training Centre in September 2020 in mechatronics maintenance, covering electrical, mechanical, pneumatics and hydraulic devices and systems. 

It was thanks to the fantastic number of resources available, including the many different capability groups which make up the AMRC, that Josh was able to complete the first part of his apprenticeship a year early.

“By working with all the different groups at the AMRC, I was able to gain lots of knowledge and cross off most of the criteria needed for this part of my apprenticeship quickly,” Josh said. 

“This progression has enabled me to start my Higher National Certificate (HNC) in controls and automation a year early and I hope to progress onto a degree level apprenticeship in the future.”

Josh said that while he was at school, the staff had ‘down-played’ apprenticeships, saying they were for people who wanted to be an  electrician or bricklayer, adding: “It wasn’t until I undertook some work experience at an engineering company close to home, that my eyes were opened to the world of engineering – and it wasn’t until this point that I really started to think about this industry, and about an apprenticeship and what it could offer me. 

“I feel very lucky with where I work and it has helped me massively with my confidence – and having the AMRC Training Centre right next door, it works together perfectly.”

Former apprentice Connor, 22, who completed his degree apprenticeship in maintenance engineering, spent almost five years working for hand tool and storage solutions manufacturer Stanley Black & Decker, but for the past six months, has been working as a methods process analyst for aerospace giant Boeing at its Sheffield facility, which is the only one in Europe. 

 “An apprenticeship to me has been very valuable as you’re being taught by people who have had experience in industry, so you learn firsthand how it all works,” Connor said. “From there, you meet people at work and together, it’s these people who have helped me understand how industry works, not just in the UK, but on a global scale. 

“Rotherham has a rich industrial heritage and I feel it’s important to uplift people’s knowledge and skills, whatever age, and keep these valuable jobs in the UK, instead of seeing engineering progress and advancements be lost to other countries. We need to keep the UK industry alive.” 

New apprentice Iola, 19, is less than a year into her advanced apprenticeship in metallic machining. She is employed by McLaren Racing, home to the Formula 1, IndyCar, Formula E, Extreme E and esports teams. 

“I decided to look for engineering-based courses at university and apply for apprenticeships,” Iola said. “I was set to take up an offer at university but turned it down after receiving a call from McLaren Racing with an offer. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and something I couldn’t turn down. 

“Working at McLaren, while undertaking my studies at the AMRC Training Centre, was the best thing that could have happened for me. I’m taught by the best and apprenticeships help to transfer the vital skills of others in industry, to prepare the next generation.” 

Helping to mould and shape our future engineers are the academics and trainers, the ones who know the industry like no other. 

Gareth Wilkinson, head of skills at the AMRC Training Centre, has been there from the start and helped to build up the facility we see today.   

“I was one of the first to be employed by the University’s AMRC Training Centre,” Gareth said. “We built everything from the ground up, started to deliver engineering frameworks and were the early adopters of the new apprenticeship standards. 

“It’s been a journey of development and we’ve consistently improved year-on-year  – and we have continued to build relationships with our employers, even working with a number of them that we worked with from the start, so we must be doing something right.”

Gareth says the training centre team have never rested on their laurels, always striving for better, adding: “I don't think there has been an intake year over the last decade where we've had the same recruitment strategy for more than one year. Each time we've made tweaks and adjustments and I think that has brought out a better calibre of apprentices every year. 

“We have had to be brave, try new things and break the mould, but we’ve never been afraid to try.”

Where does Gareth see the AMRC Training Centre in the next ten years? “I’d like for us to move into new things, build on what we’ve got, as well as exploring food and drink and nuclear, robotics and Industry 4.0 more,” Gareth said. “These are all massive areas where we’ll see growth and change in the future, all connected to net zero and sustainability – and it’s here where we really need to ramp up over the coming years to help our apprentices solve the problems of the future and keep on top of the needs of industry.” 

Animesh Anand is quite new to his post and is one of the academic engineering tutors for advanced apprenticeships. Despite having just one year under his belt, he brings with him passion, fresh ideas and high hopes. 

“Coming into teaching, compared to industry, I like the fact that everyday is different – the people you interact with, the way lessons are taught – I can teach the same lesson to four different groups, but are not taught the same way, as each group is different,” he said. “I try to tailor my teaching to the individual as best I can.

“I believe apprenticeships are vital to how engineering should be developed.” 

Animesh is also a big advocate for bringing more diversity and inclusion into engineering, adding: “I’ve worked a lot with the UK’s Institute of Materials, Mining and Minerals (IMO3). I’m vice chair of its ably-different and LBGT+ committees. One of the biggest things I talk about when it comes to diversity in engineering is encouraging diverse discussion, something I always try to bring to my teaching and be open with my students.

“It’s great to see the AMRC Training Centre carrying that diversity message too and being open to expand on it more in the future.” 

As well as the apprentices and trainers, it too is the hundreds of employers the AMRC Training Centre works alongside which help to make apprenticeships possible – from the world’s well-known household names such as McLaren, Boeing and Rolls-Royce, to the smaller companies that are the lifeblood of the UK economy and supply chains. It’s companies like these that play a part in not only keeping British manufacturing alive but restoring its reputation as a world-leader.

Boeing was the first major partner of the AMRC when it was established in 2001 and has been a big advocate of the AMRC Training Centre. 

As the global giant marks its fifth anniversary later this year since opening its own production facility in Sheffield, Gabriella Stannah, early careers lead for Boeing UK, described the difference its apprentices make to industry. “We are hugely proud of the contributions our apprentices make every day to our UK operations, while also gaining key skills and qualifications,” she said. 

“At Boeing, we are committed to supporting the UK aerospace industry’s expansion, and with partners including the AMRC Training Centre, our apprenticeships are helping to build the skills needed to drive future growth. They also support our goals to build a diverse, productive workforce, by creating opportunities for people who may not previously have considered a career in aerospace.”

SME Penny Hydraulics, based near Chesterfield, has been working with the AMRC Training Centre for seven years. 

Martha Penny, human resources manager for Penny Hydraulics, said in that time, 38 per cent of its staff started via an apprenticeship – with 59 per cent of those having been employed via the AMRC Training Centre. She added: “Five of these staff now have permanent roles and six are at various stages of their apprenticeship journey, ranging from advanced through to degree apprenticeships - and we plan to take on another AMRC Training Centre apprentice this year, so the relationship continues. 

“The apprenticeship standards consist of key knowledge, skills and behaviours, ensuring that not only are our apprentices firmly introduced to the competencies required by their roles, but are guided by intersecting subjects such as health and safety, workplace management, respectful and conscientious attitudes and equality, diversity and inclusion. 

“Apprentices are a vital part of the employee fabric and ensure the longevity of our company within the engineering and manufacturing industry.”

It’s clear to see the AMRC Training Centre matters, echoed by the apprentices who describe the need for growth and to keep manufacturing alive in the region – made possible thanks to the trainers who instil confidence and teach the talent of the future, using cutting-edge machinery and provide the skills needed by employers, both regionally and nationally, as we all strive for a more sustainable, prosperous future. Together, they become the jewel in the apprenticeship crown. And you cannot create a tomorrow, done better, without the people to do that.