A UNIQUE hi-tech training facility is expected to play a key role in bridging a skills gap within the engineering industry.
The £1.2 million Dove Engineering Centre delivers top-quality apprenticeship training for leading businesses across the region.
More than 160 students made up the initial intake in September at the new facility, which is part of the successful JCB Academy.
And director of apprenticeships Jim Bailey is convinced it can help to address a shortage of skilled technicians across the UK.
He said: “There’s a massive skills gap within the engineering sector in this country and it has left businesses in all kinds of industries struggling to recruit properly-trained staff.
“There’s a real lack of people coming through with the depth of knowledge of modern techniques and practices that companies in all sorts of sectors need.
“One of the reasons the Centre was set up was to help to address that situation by providing a clear link between education and the world of employment.
“While schools can take students to the end of a particular educational route, we are closing the loop by making those students suitable for businesses.”
Helping the entire engineering sector was the over-riding vision of JCB Chairman Lord Anthony Bamford, who formally opened the Centre – housed in the former Dove First School in Rocester, Staffordshire – in September.
The school closed in July last year and the building, along with associated land, was purchased by JCB.
An extension was added as part of conversion work funded by the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the building was transformed into a dedicated and purpose-designed amenity featuring modern facilities and cutting-edge technology.
A mechatronics suite features a hi-tech rig that replicates an entire manufacturing system along with a host of hydraulic and pneumatic equipment while, in another area, students undertake projects using computer aided design.
The metrology department houses a co-ordinate measurement machine alongside a range of other industrial measuring tools, while there’s also a drafting room containing 15 drawing stations and a science lab geared towards the study of engineering principles.
The Centre, which has also been fitted out with its own canteen, delivers largely academic education for young engineers, while apprentices receive technical tuition in workshops at the main Academy site nearby.
The facility has its own fitting room alongside machine, welding and electrical workshops – each featuring the latest equipment.
And it’s a connection between the Academy and the Engineering Centre that makes the entire project unique, according to Mr Bailey.
He added: “The Academy has been providing apprenticeship programmes for four years, but the development of the new Centre takes that provision to the next level.
“We are already the only school in the country that is also a training provider and now we can provide a seamless transition across to apprenticeships.
“It has helped us to deliver a pathway that students can follow from a young age until they secure employment in the role they’ve always wanted.
“Learners can join the Academy as 13 or 14-year-olds and, if they work hard and make the right choices, they can leave us with a degree and a job. Of course, it very much depends on what direction students want to go in, but the opportunity is now there.
Employers use the Centre to equip their own apprentices with the latest skills and the facility, which has a capacity to admit 200 students over the age of 16 a year, welcomed an initial intake of 161 – with an average age of 22.
Almost 50 per cent come from Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire and 32 per cent from Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire.
Each apprentice, recruited by employers themselves, will attend four days a week for the first 12 months of apprentice programmes which could last three years, depending on which course they take.
Mr Bailey said: “Teaching is initially standardised across the Craft and Technical range and students will study each topic on core skills in three-week blocks.
“Either the students themselves, or the companies they’re linked to, will then choose one of several programme pathways. They might want to specialise as a fabrication welder or they might want a more technical, advanced role.
“We’ll design a programme of study to suit their requirement and, while that might change as we go along depending on skill, aptitude or employers’ need, that’s certainly the initial aim.”
Craft courses, including welding and fabrication, last for 18 months while the Technician pathway, for potential electrical and mechanical engineers and those aiming for roles in design, quality or maintenance for example, is a three-year cycle.
Higher learners can go on to take advantage of the Centre’s partnership with Sheffield Hallam University which enables apprentices to take a full engineering degree free of charge.
Mr Bailey said: “Sheffield Hallam has a great reputation in engineering and students who take the degree study partly here and partly there.
“Our link with the university means those who come through our system can go from the Academy into the Centre and leave with a degree. For anyone setting their sights on a career in engineering, that has to be a no-brainer.”
The apprenticeship programme, which employs the equivalent of 21 full-time tutors, stands out from rival providers on several fronts, according to Mr Bailey.
He said: “We are purely focused on engineering and manufacturing and it’s our knowledge and expertise that makes us different.
“Our employers help to design the training programmes and that ensures we deliver bespoke pathways covering the entire spectrum of skills they need.
“We are passionate about engineering excellence so, rather than necessarily stick to any standard curriculum, we’ll provide a wide level of knowledge that meets the requirements of employers. Few other training providers have that passion and understanding.
“Every member of our tutor team is an expert with significant industrial or educational experience and they’re now passing on that experience and knowledge to the next generation.
“It means apprentices who come here have such a fantastic opportunity that can set them up for the rest of their lives.”
A number of businesses have already seen the potential of the Centre’s employer programme – an initiative naturally led by JCB, which is putting 119 students through their paces at the facility this year.
Nigel Ward, Apprenticeship Manager at company, said: “Developing tomorrow’s technicians with the ability to convert and deliver solid engineering principles into innovative manufacturing solutions is crucial if we’re to meet our future business and performance objectives.
“Having a hi-tech training and development facility on our doorstep is such an advantage for our apprentices as part of their ongoing training and development.
“With our training provider The JCB Academy, we’re now able to blend cutting-edge digital technology and equipment into their learning programme – helping them to develop the skills, knowledge and competencies required.
“With the support of The JCB Academy and the excellent facilities at Dove Engineering Centre, JCB is in a great position, through the development of our apprentices, to meet these future demands.”
Other employers with apprentices at the Centre this year include tyre giants Michelin, based in Stoke.
Rob Hewitt, Factory Personnel Manager at the company, said: “Michelin has been working with The JCB Academy with our last two intakes of engineering apprentices.
“There’s a shortage of skilled engineers in the market place and recruiting and training the engineers of the future through the apprentice scheme helps us fill this void.
“The JCB Academy is like-minded and it understands the need to develop engineers and the business leaders of the future.
“The new Dove Centre is a first-rate facility providing a fantastic engineering foundation to the apprentices’ education.”
Orbital Gas Systems, Continental Engineering Services and the Bri-Stor Group, which designs and manufactures solutions for commercial vehicles and other industries, have also been quick to see the potential of the Centre.
Andrew Humphrey, Managing Director at Bri-Stor based in Hixon, near Stafford, said: “Employing good people is essential to the success of our business both now and in the future.
“We have struggled to recruit engineers, technicians, fitters or programmers in the past and candidates that we could train were difficult to find too.
“The JCB Academy and now the Dove Engineering Centre are helping to change that thanks to fantastic facilities, the standard of teaching and the fact they have a thorough understanding of what’s required of engineers of the future.”
For further information contact: Joanne Hine, JCB Press Office
Tel 01889 593602. E-mail: email@example.com www.jcb.com