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Is an Apprenticeship an equally valid pathway to Chartered Engineer - a historical anachronism or the future?
An unintended and unfortunate consequence of UK government policies and wider economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s was a very substantial decline in apprenticeships which had served previous generations so well. They didn’t die completely because employers (like the company that I was Training Manager of) understood their value, not just for skilled craft trades, but also as an alternative option to “Graduate Training Schemes” for Engineers and Managers, traditionally leading to HNC type qualifications, but from the mid-2000s increasingly degrees. Initiative was eventually picked up by Government, turning it into a “flagship” policy. This has had an effect, but policy is not implementation and typically the brewery visit has not been well organised (with apologies to those unfamiliar with British vulgar slang). However, changes like this can take years if not decades to “bed in”, so I hope that we will keep trying.
Engineering Council has always been dominated by the academic perspective and relatively poorly connected with employers, therefore it has associated Apprenticeships with Technicians and not with Chartered Engineers, although it accepted that it was possible "exceptionally via bridges and ladders” for a Technician to develop into a Chartered Engineer. Incorporated (formerly Technician) Engineer was also drawn from the Apprenticeship tradition. However, once the qualification benchmark was adjusted to bachelors level, it was also intended to become the “mainstream” category for graduates, with CEng being “premium” or “elite”. Unfortunately the Incorporated category has not been successful and its international equivalent “Technologist” defined as it is by degree content (i.e. less calculus than an “engineer”) also seems equally poorly regarded or even legally restricted in other countries.
Now we have Degree Apprentices coming through, the profession has responded by offering Incorporated Engineer recognition at an early career stage. This should in principal be a good thing and I have advocated it in the past. However, I am seriously concerned that this may also stigmatise them as a “second class” form of professional, as has been the tradition to date.
Over the last few years Engineering Council has adopted a policy encouraging younger engineers to consider the Incorporated Engineer category as a “stepping stone” to Chartered Engineer. Some professional institutions have promoted this often with a particular focus on those “without the right degree for CEng” with some success. However the approach “kicks the can down the road” to the question of how they should subsequently transfer to CEng. There are potentially likely to be some frustrated, disillusioned and even angry engineers, if they find that “progression” is blocked and that they are stuck on a “stepping stone”. We don’t need more unnecessary “enemies” amongst them, we have created enough already.
A further problem is that those with accredited degrees do not expect to require a “stepping stone” and consider IEng to have no value for them or even perhaps at worst insulting. Many employers of Chartered Engineers and the professional institutions are steeped in the tradition of recruiting those with accredited degrees and developing them to Chartered Engineer in around 3-5 years. Other graduate recruiters may be less academically selective, but share similar traditions and expectations.
Is therefore a Degree Apprenticeship an equally valid pathway compared to a CEng accredited (BEng or MEng) full-time undergraduate degree course? Is performance and current capability (aka “competence”) the appropriate frame of reference for comparison, or should those from each pathway be separated academically and considered to be different “types”, or on “fast” and slow tracks”?
As Degree Apprenticeships develop further, there will be those who gain CEng accredited degrees and have work experience via an “even faster track”. My concern is that those graduates from Degree Apprenticeships who are more competent and productive than their age group peers from full-time degree programmes, but disadvantaged in academic recognition terms, may find themselves in a seemingly unfair and anomalous situation.
In addition, those employers who primarily “exploit existing technology” may continue to feel that the Engineering Council proposition is contrary to their interests and discourage engagement. Employers who invest in apprenticeships state that they experience greater loyalty from former apprentices, relative to graduate trainees and often a better return on investment. Whereas the professional institution proposition emphasises different priorities, which may align quite well with Research & Development or Consultancy type business models, but not with Operations and Maintenance or Contracting. My experience as an employer trying to encourage professional engagement was that the Professional Institution concerned advised employees informally to “move on if you want to become Chartered”, because they valued Project Engineering less than Design Engineering. As for management, this was definitely “chartered engineering” if you held the right type of engineering degree and valued if it was “prestigious”. If you didn’t hold the right type of engineering degree and weren’t “highly prestigious” then it wasn't valued much.
If Degree Apprenticeships become more strongly established, do we want to accept them as an equally valid pathway to a range of excellent careers including Chartered Engineer, or do we wish to continue our long-standing policy of treating them as useful but second or third class pathways? Will weasel words of platitude be offered ,whilst existing attitudes and practice are allowed to prevail?
If the answer is we that want to give apprentices equal value, then in the current climate of retribution, should those who have enthusiastically encouraged the stigma and snobbery against them consider falling on their swords? Enthusiasm for excellence in engineering, especially in stretching academic circumstances is a virtue not a crime and I strongly support it. Unfortunately however many around the Engineering Council family, perhaps motivated by a neediness for “status”, seem to have been mainly concerned with rationing access to the Chartered category by other “graduate level” practitioners, and disparaging those drawn from the apprenticeship tradition.
‘Stigma against apprenticeships must end,’ says Network Rail boss. Mark Carne, Network’s Rail’s chief executive (Rail Technology News)