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Building The Future: Apprenticeships In Manufacturing

Earlier this week we met Algis, an apprentice at Econ Engineering who describes his job as ‘the best in the world.’ To round off National Apprenticeship Week, we hear from Algis’ employer, Operations Director Jonathan Lupton, about the vital role apprentices have played in his family’s business over the years.

Ever since my father founded Econ Engineering back in 1969, apprentices have been central to the life of our business. From humble beginnings making farming equipment, Econ branched out to gritters in the early 1970s and has never looked back. Today we supply 85% of the road salt spreaders in the UK and employ 240 people.

The first-ever Econ apprentice, Peter Thompson, joined us back in 1970 to train as a machine toolist. He went on to become our longest-serving employee, retiring as our production manager last year exactly 50 years after he first walked through the door!

Since Peter, we have trained hundreds of apprentices for careers in manufacturing. Over half of these have been related to other employees – at times, we have had three generations of one family working on the shop floor together! Ripon in North Yorkshire has always been our home and, as such, we’re very aware of the role we play in supporting local employment. We’re proud that we can offer young people from our community the option of skilled work in manufacturing and a technical education.

The changing picture of apprenticeships

Having joined Econ myself as an apprentice in 1985, I’ve seen at first hand how the popularity of apprenticeships has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the 1990s, young people were actively discouraged from vocational qualifications and many FE colleges closed, creating a real training and recruitment problem for industries like ours. At Econ, we filled the gap by recruiting skilled migrant workers, in particular from Poland.

The trend was eventually reversed, with funding levelled up and apprenticeships encouraged once more. In 2010 we took on nine apprentices in one year, three of whom are still with us today! We often find that apprentices train with us, spread their wings for a while and then return to Econ to settle down.

In recent years, the structure of apprenticeships has remained largely unchanged. Our apprentices work towards HNDs or HNCs in subjects like mechanical engineering, spending a day a week in college and the rest of their time on the shop floor. Changes to the production process over the years have inevitably affected roles. Whereas in the past we took on apprentice welders or machinists, today’s apprentices are as likely to be programming a laser cutter as working in the machine shop. With CAD/CAM driven machine tools, there’s less physical work and the Econ factory is a cleaner, more pleasant working environment.

Making their way in the world

So why is Econ such an advocate of apprenticeships in manufacturing?

From our perspective as an employer, we see apprentices as a key part of the Econ family. They bring enthusiasm, energy and humour to the shop floor! They’re forward thinking, full of ideas and are often able to teach their older colleagues a thing or two on the IT side… It’s also extremely rewarding to watch them develop and grow. They arrive as raw material – all you need to be a good apprentice is enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

From the young person’s perspective, what could be better than working, learning and earning at the same time? They end their apprenticeship with valuable skills, no debt and experience that will stand them in good stead for future employment.

Apprenticeships in manufacturing are a particularly valuable option for young people at the moment as there’s a huge shortage of skilled vocational workers. Jobs are well paid and readily available. The Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have exposed the vital importance of the UK’s manufacturing sector – at Econ, we’re really proud to have been classed as critical workers, keeping gritters on the road (particularly in the recent wintry weather!). With investment in new technology such as AI and robotics, the manufacturing sector is an exciting place to be.

Over 50 years on from Econ Engineering’s first apprenticeship, we’re proud to still be offering young people this opportunity. For the UK to compete on a world stage we need a highly trained and motivated workforce, which is what apprenticeships deliver.

As National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close, this is something to celebrate.

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