THE Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in South Yorkshire, England, looks like the very model of a modern industrial site—bright, shiny, airy and clean. In June 1984 it was the site of a traumatic moment in British history—the Battle of Orgreave, when picketing miners clashed with police as they tried to stop lorries collecting supplies from a coking plant. The incident symbolised Britain’s post-war record of industrial decline and bitter strikes.
The old coking plant is long gone. In its place is a promising attempt to create jobs for a new generation of workers, and to tackle an ancient and ridiculous British class divide. An important part of this divide is that universities have long been seen as a place for academic subjects, calling for essays and equations. People who got their hands dirty making stuff did not go to college. But as of last autumn apprentices at the AMRC have been able to study for degree courses. When they graduate they will have an engineering degree from Sheffield University in mechanical manufacture, maintenance engineering or manufacturing technology.
The centre is one element of an attempt by the British government to overhaul the apprenticeship system by mimicking German success. More than half of young Germans take an apprenticeship qualification. The youth-unemployment rate in Germany is much lower than in other European countries; its manufacturing prowess is widely envied.
The results of the British effort have been mixed so far. The number of Britons taking apprenticeships has dropped by 28% in the year since a complex new levy on businesses was introduced. But turning apprenticeships into degrees has been a success: around 100 colleges and universities are now offering the option.
The idea of manufacturing research centres is copied from Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes. As well as the AMRC in Sheffield, Britain has a range of high-value-added manufacturing centres, part-funded by the government, including sites at Coventry in the Midlands and Strathclyde in Scotland. American policymakers are also intrigued: they adopted the idea in 2012.
The Sheffield centre was established in 2001 with Boeing as the founding partner. Leading manufacturing firms such as Rolls-Royce and Airbus are also involved. The centre is not just a pipeline for young talent; it also acts as a problem-solving institute for member companies. One item on display in Sheffield is a Trent fan disc for a Rolls-Royce engine; the centre reduced the component’s production time by 50%. The AMRC has over 100 member companies, with those in the top tier paying £300,000 ($397,000) a year and getting a seat on the board.
Nikki Jones, who runs the apprentice programme, says that the centre works with employers to make sure the apprenticeships meet their needs. To take one example, employers said trainees needed to be taught both hydraulics and pneumatics. Over 300 firms send apprentices to be trained at the site, with 195 on a course at any given time. Around 1,000 have passed through the site; the first 14 degree apprentices will qualify in 2021.
The draw for the youngsters is clear, too. They go back to their employers regularly to hone their skills. When they finish the course, 98% of trainees stay in their jobs. Ms Jones works hard to find a diverse bunch of recruits. Teams visit local schools to tell the children about apprenticeships, and over 30% of trainees come from disadvantaged areas.
A focus on sophisticated apprenticeship programmes is a long-overdue change in Britain. The question is whether it is enough. Ms Jones says she would happily double the number of trainees at the site, but that would still be a drop in the bucket when half a million children leave school each year.
Perhaps more important than the numbers is the change in attitude that the degree apprenticeships represent. The British enthusiasm for “academic” subjects has always smacked of the Victorian era, when young gentlemen were expected to get a well-rounded education so they could keep up a conversation in polite society. To the extent that vocational education was promoted, it was in professions like law and medicine. Work in manufacturing was something for the lower classes.
In the long run, that attitude has produced too many graduates in subjects such as PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) and not enough engineers. That may help explain a lot, from Britain’s poor productivity record to the Brexit mess. Too much theory, not enough practice.