Apprenticeships Key to UK's Scientific Powerhouse Strategy

Apprenticeships Key to UK's Scientific Powerhouse Strategy

When Boris Johnson announced that he intended to turn the UK into a scientific powerhouse after the Brexit vote, it was quite a surprise and a bold commitment. At that time, his government was negotiating a Brexit deal that was expected to lead to many of the skilled and experienced people that would be at the centre of the scientific powerhouse policy to leave the country.

Brexit was always expected to be a tough time for UK universities and research. A good proportion of the research that takes place in the country comes from EU funding and is accomplished by EU scientists. The complexity of today’s scientific problems needs collaboration from universities to work together to solve them, and at the time, the UK seemed to want to go its own way. Andre Geim, one of the most renowned scientists working in the UK, and the discoverer of graphene, had even said that Brexit may force him to leave the UK and made his thoughts on Brexit widely knowing by stating, “The question now is simply - to what extent is this going to be a disaster for science in the U.K”.

In June this year, a few more details emerged from Westminster. The government has pledged to increase research spending from nearly £15bn a year to £22bn by 2025 and the country’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, will head up a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy and chair a new National Science and Technology Council. The government also announced a number of other plans that included getting rid of the cap on Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas, along with a number of initiatives intended to assist scientists and their families to live and work in the UK.

These world-class scientists will need a great degree of support from engineers and technicians, which has not been included in the government’s plans so far. One way to increase the number of these vocations may be to expand apprenticeship programmes that are actually working. Until now, much of the country’s focus has been on degree level education. However, there are high levels of drop outs on STEM degrees, and even after graduation, many students often decide to take a different career path. Apprentices can often gain experience in multiple areas, and be given a broader knowledge of the industry. They are paid on the job, get hands on experience and do not require student loans. There are often opportunities to continue studying to degree level and beyond after the apprenticeship is completed. Having previous experience of the work, apprentices should be more likely to see out the course.

A good example of this is the apprenticeships run by Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) at its Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire and Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire. The 4 year courses involve an initial year at college, followed by a series of placements with part-time study. The placements allow the students to develop a range of skills in the different workplace departments.

One person who took advantage of the apprenticeship programme is Jamie Nutter, who initially started his apprenticeship in 2008 and took up a position at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory after he had successfully completed the apprenticeship. After working every position in the team Jamie is currently the Leader of the facility’s Electronic Support Section, with the responsibility for the electronic support of scientists performing experiments at the facility. Jamie’s team ensures the equipment and environment are prepared and ready for the scientists to come in and perform the experiments.

The ISIS Neutron and Muon Source offers the use of neutron and muon instruments to scientists who need insights into the properties of materials on the atomic scale. It helps hundreds of companies and thousands of scientists every year to test and explore the inner workings of materials. The object to be tested is situated in a neuron or muon beam, which can be shaped to suit the experiment. Data is then taken to find out how the atoms are arranged and the the scientists work backwards to find out what has occurred in the sample. The experiments are performed under a large number of different conditions, often including 1000oC furnaces or ultra-low temperature environments. The samples to be tested can vary from organic samples to aircraft wings. The team has the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names and companies in the industry. For example, ISIS scientists have worked with NVIDIA and Arm to help them cosmic-proof GPUs.

Jamie started his apprenticeship after completing his GCSEs, and has gained a number of more advanced qualifications since, including a BSc in Electrical Engineering from Oxford. Now, he supervises the current tranche of apprentices who do 4 months stints in the Electronic Support Section, meaning that there is always at least one apprentice with the team throughout the year. After that four month placement, the apprentices will go into different sections in the STFC laboratories, gaining a variety of skills and experience.

In describing the placements, Jamie says, “We teach the apprentices the basics of what we do and why we do it. We try to develop their knowledge and skills to be capable of working in the department. The apprentices have certain areas of development that they've been given that they need to develop to pass a qualification. We look at those areas and see how we can adapt our normal day-to-day work to incorporate the skills they need.”

Many more initiatives like these will be required in the future if the UK is to become the scientific superpower that the current government wants. Apprenticeships could be an ideal vehicle to help support those world-class scientists that the government is keen to bring to the UK, but they need to ramp up the programmes soon.