Degree Apprenticeships Can Catalyse a Sustainable Built Environment #NAW2021

It’s National Apprenticeship Week, and here at NMITE, work-readiness is in our DNA. In fact, that’s what we were founded to do – create an environment in which learners of all backgrounds and at all career stages could become engineers who can add value quickly and adapt to the changing nature of technology and engineering. Our first programme offer - the NMITE Accelerated MEng Integrated Engineering – is infused with challenge-based learning, industrial and community partners, and authentic assessment that will help our graduates hit the ground running after they graduate.

At the top of our agenda for next steps is to develop NMITE’s apprenticeship provision. We know that a degree apprenticeship is a great alternative to full time university experience, and we have the aspiration to play a key role in offering this route for young people and ‘upskillers’. At last month’s Universities UK conference on Degree Apprenticeships, speakers and participants noted an increase in the uptake of higher and degree level programmes when compared to lower level ones. With employers looking to mandate a degree for particular jobs, the importance of Degree Apprenticeships looks only likely to increase. The challenge for HEIs is develop content and programmes that suit new market demands, with a particular focus on how small and medium enterprises can benefit from graduate-level on-the-job training.

This modern form of higher education has very old roots. In fact, the UK’s first national apprenticeship standard - as a means to regulate training and entry to professions - was introduced in 1563 as an attempt to ensure fair terms and conditions for workers and reduce vagrancy. Today there are over 700 standards held by the Institute for Apprenticeships.183 of those relate to Engineering and Manufacturing standards, and 45 of them are at degree or postgraduate level. Given the amount of employer and HE involvement in their development, it is clear that good standards are as relevant now as they were 500 years ago.

One sector for which NMITE advocates for new standards is in timber technology, and there is a real lack of apprenticeship opportunities for those wanting to work with timber as a structural material. Only three courses offer level 2 or 3 qualifications, and there is no provision in England or Wales at degree level. This is a contributing factor to the shortage of qualified timber engineers. An ageing workforce is another important part of this mix – the 2016 Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model  forecast that, due to an ageing workforce, 620,000 people will have retired from the construction industry by 2026. This challenge can only be met by a combination of training new apprentices at a variety of levels, combined with upskilling those already within the sector and training new incomers to fill the vacated role.

This is the situation in the context of a growing market with environment importance. The Structural Timber Association report that structural timber frames account for approximately 30% of the new build housing market. This is unsurprising given UK Government’s  June 2019 legislation to facilitate transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Because trees sequester carbon dioxide as they grow, timber acts as a carbon sink that is an important part of the net-zero jigsaw.  As well as environmental benefit, timber-framed structures offer the opportunity for significantly faster build times and significantly lower costs. The timber industry has been advocating for enhanced vocational training, with the  Confederation of Timber Industries recommending that school leavers have access to apprenticeship programmes relevant to the construction industry via the Education and Skills Agency.

NMITE is passionate that degree-level apprenticeship provision is part of this picture. We have secured funding to develop and deliver the first Timber Engineering degree apprenticeship standard (level 6) in England and Wales. Through conversations with local industry partners such as Border Oak, Oakwrights, Taylor Lane and Tailor Made, we believe that this gap can be filled by offering a level 6, five-year degree apprenticeship programme in Timber Engineering. This would not only help solve a local skills shortage in Herefordshire but would also be a project of national significance, offering the only course of this kind in England and Wales. Our vision is that the programme will be triple accredited – not just for engineering, but for management - and would receive academic validation through our validation partners as well as achieving the recognised apprenticeship standard from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

Whilst the impacts of COVID-19 might have slowed us down, we’re excited about developing innovative provision by bringing one of the oldest models of training to a challenge that embodies our future – a sustainable built environment.