James Sopwith explains how the business’s tried and tested pre-apprenticeship scheme is something more businesses should consider.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching impacts on just about every industry and sector. But arguably, none have been as damaging than its effects on education.

Schools and universities were some of the first institutions forced to shut at the onset of the pandemic, and almost a year later, not much has changed for students. With little to no face-to-face teaching time, playing catch up with the curriculum and exam cancellations, uncertainty prevails for young people all over the country.

Research has revealed that over 27,000 students could miss out on university this year through COVID-inflicted learning loss, with the Association of Colleges also voicing their concerns in this area.

And these effects are likely to have a knock-on impact to futures, with many rethinking career paths and seeking alternative routes to employment. So, now, more than ever, focus should be given to apprenticeships.

Backing this notion is James Sopwith, Group Strategic Account Director at the multidisciplinary engineering company, adi Group. Here, on National Apprenticeship Week, James explains how the business’s tried and tested pre-apprenticeship scheme, which is now in its fifth successful year, is something that more employers should begin to consider.

“The pre-apprenticeship scheme is an EAL accredited programme, that each year, allows a class of twelve 14-16 year olds to gain valuable insight into the engineering profession, as well as the professional world of work, alongside completing their normal curriculum-set studies.”

Students enrolled on the programme spend one afternoon a week in a professional, hands-on setting, which happens to be at adi’s custom-built workshops in Kings Norton. Its location marries perfectly with the programme’s exclusive partnership with nearby North Bromsgrove High School.

But although exclusive, the scheme’s fundamental design is that of promoting greater accessibility to the engineering profession to individuals who typically have limited opportunities to learn about and experience all that a career in the field has to offer.

“That is exactly the reason focus should be given to apprenticeships by employers in the current commercial and COVID-stricken climate,” said James.

“In engineering, it’s a chance to re-educate young people who so often have misconceptions of what an engineer is. But in reality, as any one of us in the field know, those low pay, dirty environment perceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.

“By changing the way this group sees the wide-ranging job opportunities within engineering, we will ultimately be securing a more sustainable future for the field. We also want to encourage more women into the trade, more diversity and more young people in general as a matter of urgency as the STEM skills gap widens.”

While attention has been given to the shortage of skills required to fulfil engineering roles in recent years, it is already apparent that the pandemic’s impact on education will have delayed efforts until academic routes fully reopen.

“And this is one of the key benefits of taking a pre-apprenticeship approach instead. It opens up a practical learning path to those young people whose formal education has been disrupted, as well as offering an opportunity to those less keen on entering the profession through traditional academic routes.”

Again, this is one of the reasons adi chose to partner with North Bromsgrove High School, which at the time of design and delivery of the first programme, was looking for a unique student proposition to compete against other local schools in the area, as well as a broader curriculum. The pre-apprenticeship offering therefore, was a key way to attract more students, and supplement pupils’ learning with additional skills and experience that would go on to improve their academic performance and future prospects.

The approach has already proven a success, with various candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds having gone on to achieve great personal results, and make a significant impact on the business.

adi began with the vision of a former apprentice, Alan Lusty, and is committed to continuing its efforts in ensuring the route remains a pivotal part of the industry’s future, no matter the challenges it faces. So, despite cut backs by other employers looking to save budget amid economic downturn, and disruption to the in-school learning side of the programme, the scheme is still in full swing. And the hope is that the business will continue to source employees from its pool of apprentices for years to come.

“We believe it is time for others to consider the option too. We have already collaborated with other like-minded businesses to replicate the tried and tested pre-apprenticeship scheme structure and we are expecting to see more interest as its benefits, and remedies to the market’s current challenges become more apparent.

“So, while we’ve committed to doing our part, we can’t make the impact we would like to, alone. It is going to take collective effort from manufacturers and engineering Companies across the industry. It might even be an idea to take inspiration from other businesses operating in STEM fields and learn from their efforts in tackling the skills gaps, too.”

Notably, bp Oil has long committed itself to supporting STEM education, investing in research programmes to understand young people’s perceptions, opportunities and representation in such fields, and then using the insight to build capacity in education in science areas across the UK.

“Engineering could certainly benefit from a similar approach,” said James.

“While our pre-apprenticeship scheme originates in Birmingham, that’s not to say willing engineering businesses cannot open the opportunity up to a much wider population in order to accelerate our sustainable future.

“The virus has already taken so much from us but taking these steps now will ensure we do not lose this next generation too. And as the UK Government encourages us to ‘train’, ‘retain’ and ‘achieve’ this Apprenticeship Week, we would encourage businesses take from it more than just buzzwords to really transform our industry for the better.”

About adi Group
Designing, constructing and self-delivering robust client solutions from over 30 specialist disciplines, the adi Group takes a holistic approach to sustainability, skills and partnership.

Consistent, organic growth since its establishment in 1990 has enabled the business to broaden the portfolio of services it offers clients in the Automotive, Food & Beverage, Manufacturing, Aerospace & Defence, Pharmaceutical and Petrochemical sectors.

Serving as a client’s single point of responsibility, adi Group overturns UK engineering’s niche model to offer clients 360° support across the spectrum – from the smallest expert installation or maintenance contract to large-scale capital projects. End-to-end, full lifecycle support.

Inspired by the same principles that serve Formula 1 so well, adi counts many of the world’s best loved brands among its loyal clients. A ‘right first time’ culture ensures a team of over 660 with a UK-wide reach creates and delivers the turnkey solutions that engineer the outcomes – and outputs – clients demand.

With ambitious sustainability, growth and skills development plans for the years ahead, adi Group is always looking for high calibre engineers to come on board.

james sopwith adi group
James Sopwith

James Sopwith
James has worked in the manufacturing sector for over 25 years. A graduate mechanical engineer, he began his career as an engineering designer within the automotive industry, progressing through production management, into senior management and then managing director positions.

Joining multi-disciplined engineering services company adi Group in 2008, his current role is as Group Strategic Account Director, as well as being Managing Director of adi Projects – a division which encompasses the 360 degree turnkey and self-delivery mantra of the adi Group.

James is passionate about closing the engineering skills gap, and to this end he heads up the Group’s pre-apprenticeship program for 14 to 16 year olds. Taking up 10% of the children’s GCSE curriculum time, the programme has delivered strong success for adi in its overall commitment to skills development, with apprentices now representing over 7% of its 600+ workforce.

Helping readdress gender imbalances in the industry, James is also keen to encourage more women into the engineering industry, dispelling outdated stereotypes around the profession and highlighting shining examples in the business like 18-year-old Abbie Beaver, who at age 17, was named as one of the top female engineers in the country by the prestigious Women’s Engineering Society.