News Article

Apprenticeships as a tool for unlocking talent and building a skilled manufacturing workforce

Apprenticeships as a tool for unlocking talent and building a skilled manufacturing workforce

With Apprenticeship Week 2024 fast approaching (taking place from 5th - 11th February 2024) and increasing complexity in the talent attraction space, it is the right time for manufacturing employers to examine their options and optimise their use of apprenticeships and further education more broadly. Apprenticeships play a vital role in the manufacturing sector in Yorkshire, providing a pathway for individuals to gain practical skills and knowledge while contributing to the growth and innovation of the industry.

Manufacturers in Yorkshire face several challenges in implementing and maximising the benefits of apprenticeship programmes. Some of the key challenges include:

The manufacturing skills gap

Yorkshire, like many other regions, faces a skills gap, with a shortage of individuals possessing the necessary technical skills and knowledge. This gap hinders the industry's ability to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving manufacturing landscape. Manufacturers are nurturing links with schools at colleges earlier and earlier to capture the interest of tomorrow’s workforce.

Relationship building and engagement

Scarborough’s UTC opened in 2016, championed by organisations throughout Scarborough who wanted an institution that could address the skills needed within the area. Scarborough UTC currently has around 250 students, recruited from all over North Yorkshire, which will grow to 350 when the Year 9 intake reaches sixth form. Natalie Griffiths, Scarborough UTC’s Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning and Employer Engagement, explains the work the college does in support of engineering, health and cybersecurity sectors in the region:

“Our primary focus at Scarborough UTC is to ensure that students leave us with the skills they need to be truly employable within their chosen area of work, be that via an apprenticeship or university route.

“Encounters with employers are a key aspect of student experience at SUTC, with students across year groups already having had the opportunity this year to take part in employer-led visits, masterclasses, presentations and careers events. Project-based learning activities are also taking place with Severfield, McCain, Castle Group, Yorkshire Baker and Northern Powergrid, giving groups of students the opportunity to work one-to-one with these employer partners. The relationships developed as a result of this type of work have directly resulted in students being recruited onto apprenticeship programmes within our local industries, including Anglo American, Unison, Severfield, Dale Power and Firmac.”

Growing your own talent

Leeds-based Sound Leisure was initially founded by inventor and electrical engineer, Alan Black, in 1978. Today the company is still owned and run by Alan and his family, making it the oldest single-ownership jukebox company anywhere in the world. The company exports around 80% of all the Classic Jukeboxes it builds in an average year, to over 40 countries worldwide. The company rejects mass production, and every jukebox is hand-built with passion, care and expertise, using skills passed down through generations of their workforce but this requires a sustained effort when it comes to recruiting the skilled craftspeople of tomorrow. Chris Black, Alan’s son, who now serves as Managing Director, explains:

“We have 70 team members, ten per cent of which have come through the apprenticeship route, so we're reliant on apprentices. We've just had two apprentices qualify last month. They’re doing cabinet making, which is needed to build our classic-style machines. We're now on the hunt for our next apprentices. One will be doing woodworking and the other will most likely be doing electronics in our repair centre. We're attending an apprenticeship fair, which will be quite an exciting day. We're expecting about 8,000 people to attend. There’s always a real buzz about it.”

In the wider Yorkshire and Humber region, Trent Refractories is a Scunthorpe-based manufacturer and supplier of bespoke refractory solutions, supplying the UK market as well as exporting to customers around the world. The company was founded in 1989 and has a strong British industrial heritage. Two generations on, the company is still owned and managed by the same family who have been joined over the years by a knowledgeable and experienced team.

Katy Moss is the company’s CEO and she is passionate about flying the flag for British manufacturing and she’s also a huge champion of developing new talent within the business. Katy says: “We must invest in our next generation to enable the skills of generations to be passed down, otherwise we risk losing strategically important manufacturing for our country. Some skills are so specialist and niche that hiring for those positions becomes increasingly more challenging and a ‘grow your own’ approach must be taken as an investment for the future.”

Changing perceptions

There is a need to address the perception that apprenticeships are inferior to traditional academic routes. Many young people and their parents are unaware of the opportunities and benefits that apprenticeships offer in terms of career progression and earning potential.

Adam Bradley is a director at the award-winning Rotherham-based manufacturer, Corrosion Resistant Materials, specialist stockholders of nickel, stainless steel, duplex aluminium and titanium materials that supplies bars, sheets, plates, tubes and pipes to their customers, who are mostly in the automotive, oil and gas, and aerospace sectors. They also offer heat treatment, machining, testing and forging to enable them to deliver a complete package.

The company has just entered its ninth year of trading and they are currently a team of twelve, which includes four who have worked their way up via the apprenticeship route. Adam qualified as a teacher but instead opted to go into manufacturing: “I didn’t become a teacher full time because it wasn’t for me, but I loved working with younger people.”

Adam is passionate about spreading the word amongst the next generation and busting the manufacturing myths: “I think there’s the incorrect perception that manufacturing is a bit of a manual, dead end, and not very well paid, so if you haven't got any ambition, that's where you need to go. But that needs to change. When we go into schools the conversation around apprenticeships is always directed towards those kids who can't go to university. I always make the point that I want to talk to everyone about apprenticeships.

“Most mainstream schools are geared around exam results. They've also measured against how many children go to university but not measured against how many kids go and do an apprenticeship. This needs to change. There’re so many more options now with T-Levels and degree apprenticeships too.”

Degree apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships, combining academic learning with practical work experience, allowing apprentices to earn a degree while gaining valuable industry-specific skills.

This approach bridges the gap between theory and practice, producing highly skilled individuals who are ready to contribute to the manufacturing sector. In FMCG manufacturing, leading blue-chip employer Unilever offers a five-year Leeds-based packaging research and development degree apprenticeship, where apprentices become part of a team leading the way in developing new sustainable packaging and products and working in their Packaging Lab and Advanced Manufacturing Centre. Apprentices work towards a BSc in Packaging from Sheffield Hallam University.

New government figures released in January 2024 show that apprenticeship starts in England were up 7% in the first quarter of 2023/24 compared to the same period last year. Spending on degree-level apprenticeships hit the half-a-billion-pound mark in a single year for the first time in 2021/22, but there’s concern that demand is exceeding supply and the originally intended boosts to social mobility aren’t being realised.

Carl Cullinane, Director of Research and Policy at the Sutton Trust, said: “Degree apprenticeships have significant potential to boost social mobility. Those who undertake them have the chance to earn while they learn and complete them without student debt. However, our research has shown that the proportion of degree apprentices from low-income backgrounds is actually lower than for undergraduates (5% vs 6.7%), with people aged over 25 accounting for the majority of those undertaking them. While interest in degree apprenticeships is growing among young people, three in five former applicants say they did not apply for one because they could not find one in their area.

“As things stand there are simply not enough apprenticeship opportunities available and those that exist are, on the whole, not accessible to disadvantaged young people. There is a big opportunity for government and employers to address skills gaps and boost the economy by increasing the supply of apprenticeships. Financial barriers such as low pay, relocation and transport costs should also be addressed so that apprenticeships are accessible to those who stand to benefit most from them.”

Digitalisation and automation

With the increasing adoption of digital technologies and automation in manufacturing, apprenticeships now incorporate training in areas such as robotics, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. This ensures that apprentices are equipped with the necessary skills to operate and maintain advanced manufacturing systems.

Hannah Wilson is the Principal of UTC Leeds. The vision of the college is to inspire the next generation of leading engineers, scientists and innovators. The college intends to develop students who will make a valuable and lifelong contribution to society and the engineering industry. They strive for their students to study a stimulating and relevant curriculum, exposing them to cutting-edge technologies and employer-led projects, and giving them a challenging, well-rounded education.

“I am absolutely amazed by the quality of the apprenticeships now on offer to our young people. As industry v4.0 becomes a reality to many of our local business partners, we aim to equip our students in advance of need, meaning that they are well placed to enter the modern world of manufacturing.

“We've spent 240k this year on investing in our tech so that our young people use high-spec mechatronics kit alongside our more traditional equipment like lathes and milling machines. Whilst we try to get ahead of technology, as robotics and AI move so quickly, we aim to instil the basic principles of engineering foremost so that our young people can lead change within their workplace now, and as future technologies emerge.”

Government Levelling Up funding has been utilised to great effect in Brighouse, where the i4.0 Hub has been developed to transform the way both apprentices and employees train:

David Malone, Principal and Chief Executive at Calderdale College, said: “The development of the i4.0 Hub in West Yorkshire will offer employers across the region the opportunity to explore how digital technology can improve productivity within the engineering and manufacturing sectors.

“Housing high-tech equip for augmented reality, advanced manufacturing and robotics, this new innovative facility will transform the way apprentices and employees in this industry train, digitalising our curriculum to open up the wide range of career options.

“The project is part of the Brighouse Town Deal’s £19.1 million investment as part of the Levelling Up Fund to transform Brighouse and make it a better place to live, work and visit.

Innovative ways to overcome funding challenges

The Apprenticeship Levy, introduced in 2017, is a UK tax on employers which is used to fund apprenticeship training. It is payable by all employers with an annual pay bill of more than £3 million, at a rate of 0.5% of their total pay bill, but this poses a challenge as these funds are at risk of being lost if not reallocated effectively.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has developed a free transfer service to support businesses to transfer up to 25% of their unspent apprenticeship levy to smaller businesses taking on apprentices as part of a drive to get more people into secure, well-paid jobs in West Yorkshire.

A transfer covers 100% of the training costs of the apprenticeship standard and avoids smaller businesses paying the 5% contribution towards the training. Of all the 181 businesses supported by the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Service to date, 18 are within the manufacturing sector. One such example is Burton Safes, a leading manufacturer of physical security solutions. The company received £6,000 funded by the University of Huddersfield.

Part of the reason this scheme is so powerful is the match that is made between the transferring organisations and the recipients. This is the frugal Yorkshire mantra of ‘waste not want not’ in full effect.

Bridging the management skills gap

Across in South Yorkshire, Anne Wilson MBE is Head of Business Growth and Leadership Programmes at Whyy? Change in Rotherham. Anne points out that “all too often in the manufacturing sector, we hear about ‘accidental managers’. This is where someone at their technical job will get promoted without any leadership or management qualifications. All of a sudden, they'll go from doing a good job to having a team of people that they now have to manage with no learnt skill at all.”

According to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), only 1 in 5 managers hold a professional qualification which highlights the skills gap amongst those in leadership roles. Businesses are now more than ever, looking to utilise the apprenticeship levy to support their succession planning and grow their own teams.

Anne added: “We've got to prepare people for those succession plans in that type of environment. Apprenticeships are available across 170 sectors and in over 1500 job roles, they're not just for manual trade jobs, we've got to get the companies engaged in the thought process of learning is not just for school leavers, it's lifelong. As you progress in your career, you need new skills, knowledge and your potential behaviours to be the best possible version of yourself.”

Creating an in-house academy

The manufacturing sector in Yorkshire has embraced innovative approaches to apprenticeships, recognising the need to adapt to the evolving demands of the industry.

Balmoral Tanks welcomes a new cohort of staff into their Leadership Academy every year. Whether they’re based in Balmoral’s site in Thurnscoe, outside Barnsley, or their sister sites. Nicola Wagstaff, their Senior HR Advisor, explains: “This year our Leadership Academy has seen twelve employees from three locations embrace and engage in the processes. With quality being at the forefront of everyone’s mind at Balmoral, we are always looking at our processes and procedures for ways to improve. Numerous projects are currently been worked on within the academy, as who knows the role and the business better than the team carrying it out?”

Employer branding

Made in Yorkshire offers members a suite of employer branding resources to help them attract and retain new talent. Our employer toolkit includes a range of high-quality 'Made' employer branding logos and assets. In addition, members gain access to valuable resources through the Made Platform, enabling them to post job vacancies on the Made Futures job board. The platform also offers a job vacancy template for creating customised social ads. By utilising these tools, you can effectively communicate your organisation's dedication to diversity and inclusion, both internally and externally.

As part of this, Made in Yorkshire members and patrons can also sign up to an inclusion pledge. One such company that has done this is E3R. James Soden is a director and business partner with extensive knowledge and expertise, not only in recruitment but also in supporting businesses to nurture their employer brand.

“When working to attract young people to the manufacturing industry, employer brand is incredibly important but not as important as a genuine interest in creating a positive, diverse and development-led culture. An employer brand campaign is necessary to reach the younger generation — but organisation-wide commitment to building positive work cultures that foster development and diversity is what helps a young person choose you as an employer of choice as opposed to being just another option, in what is already such a competitive market.

“Once you have the answer to ‘why should someone choose to work with us?’ it becomes much easier to build the ideal candidate profile for your business, and run an employer brand campaign that really delivers results.”


There are numerous opportunities for employers who are looking to the future, but that doesn’t exclusively mean young, male talent as was once the case. Upskilling and reskilling programmes don’t just have to be designed for a company’s existing workforce. Career changers and ‘mature’ workers are almost untapped sources of talent. New advances in robotics are set to support more physically disabled people into manufacturing roles. Striving for better gender balance is another massive opportunity, but this requires investment in proper facilities on sites that often never accommodated women.

The manufacturers of Yorkshire undoubtedly have what it takes to overcome these challenges and ensure that apprenticeships continue to drive growth, innovation, and a skilled workforce in the manufacturing sector. To answer the age-old question: Are we there yet? No, we’re not, but we’re getting closer year on year.