A Wearside storage vessel maker has urged employers and the Government to tackle the manufacturing skills shortage by continuing to invest in adult apprenticeships.
Wessington Cryogenics, which has 15 apprentices on its books, including nine over the age of 24, has called on ministers to retain funding to upskill older workers and keep companies competitive.
The Houghton-le-Spring-based firm has teamed up with Gateshead College to develop a bespoke apprenticeship in Performing Engineering Operations (PEO) – a move which aims to fast-track the development of staff aged 25 and over.
The first to graduate from the scheme is Simon Bowman, who recently completed the PEO programme and an in-house traineeship programme.
The 25-year-old from Prudhoe, who is now qualified as a time-served welder and fabricator, joined Wessington seven years ago as an assistant technician but found he did not have the skills needed to carry out tasks other than basic assembly work.
“My job is much more interesting now, to be honest, and my training has led to a promotion and a good pay rise,” he said.
Bowman is not the only beneficiary of the scheme, which is open to Wessington staff of all ages.
Five other workers, including two in their 50s, are currently enrolled on the apprenticeship, which equips them with essential knowledge of fabrication, welding and machining techniques, as well as health and safety practices.
The initiative follows a successful campaign by Wessington – which makes low-temperature storage vessels for the oil, gas and bio-medical sectors – to lobby for more Government funding to upskill learners aged over 24.
The firm’s director, Gill Southern, who sits on the board of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, was actively involved in drumming up support for the move.
“The manufacturing skills gap won’t be bridged purely by apprenticeships for the under-25s, although this is still important,” she said.
“What we need is a blended approach that includes more apprenticeships for people over 24.
“We lobbied extensively for the retention of funding for this age group and I’m glad to say that the Government has listened to us. Skills development for the over-24s is still available for companies that need it.”
She added that the PEO apprenticeship allowed a “lost generation of twenty-somethings” who had never previously been offered apprenticeships to become time-served tradesmen or women.
It also meant older workers who already have a trade can gain transferable skills that enable them to carry out high-quality welding and fabrication work within the business.
“I’d encourage other employers to partner with local colleges to produce bespoke training packages similar to the one we’ve established with Gateshead College,” Southern said.
“It has enabled us to become much more flexible, agile and productive as a business.”
The Wessington staff on the PEO apprenticeship spend one day a week at the college’s Team Valley-based Skills Academy for Automotive, Engineering, Manufacturing and Logistics, which has a dedicated welding workshop, spray booths and specialist diagnostic and testing equipment.
Mick Brophy, managing director of business, innovation and development at Gateshead College, said: “The academy is an important part of the vocational training infrastructure of the North East.
“It’s important that students of all ages have access to this type of facility, particularly in the manufacturing and engineering industries which suffer from major skills shortages.”