Colin Kennedy says welding is not a menial trade


Colin Kennedy, marketing associate at Air Products and a member of the SkillWeld 2014 Committee, writes:

Misconceptions about the skills used in metal fabrication and some other ‘lower-value’ engineering jobs must be addressed to support business growth and avoid a skills crisis in the future.

Metal fabrication skills such as welding have long been considered low value compared to those used in mechanical, computer or electrical engineering jobs, for example.

But this perception comes from an out-dated belief that metal fabrication work is menial and creates few opportunities for career progression.  There is also a perception that it is unattractive because it is usually carried out in a hot and unpleasant environment.

When they discover welding skills for the first time, however, young people are often surprised at what they find. Just a couple of weeks into the training, their perceptions begin to change. They learn about flow rates, how to avoid distortion and techniques for achieving a quality weld using different metals. Getting it right every time requires strong skills and application and they gain a sense of achievement.

Contrary to the expectations of many, good quality metal fabrication skills are in strong demand across the UK in a range of thriving industries where job prospects are far from limited – the oil and gas and nuclear industries, for example. Some welding novices are also pleased to find that gaining an industry-recognised welding qualification can open doors to skilled, contract work overseas.

Of course, to be successful, apprenticeships have to be beneficial for employers here in the UK.  Headquartered in Staffordshire, Alstom UK runs three-year-long welding apprenticeships and to date 20 young apprentices have completed the programme and are now part of the company’s workforce, based at sites across the UK. A further five apprentices will be recruited to join the programme this year and each year a number are selected to enter SkillWeld, a national competition to find Britain’s most talented trainee welder. Last year, one of the company’s apprentices – Kurt Rodgers – won the competition.

Trainers at Alstom UK say that since introducing the apprenticeship programme in 2006 the scheme has led to the employment of more than 30 skilled welders and has more than paid for itself in terms of the time and money invested.  As part of the government-backed Employee Ownership of Skills pilot programme, the company is also taking on more than 30 unskilled school leavers and unemployed individuals for a 27-week-long training course, giving them an opportunity to gain a welding qualification equivalent to NVQ Level 2 and beyond. The pipeline of talent feeding the business as a result of this investment in training is invaluable and is helping the business to grow.

Alstom UK is one of only a handful of companies offering welding apprenticeships in the UK – others include National Grid and Doosan – and more are needed to help to address the current skills shortage and ensure we have enough talent to meet industry demand in the future.

The most common point of entry to a welding career is currently an industrial apprenticeship, most of which are supported by government funding. The Apprenticeship Grant for Employers scheme allows employers who have not had an apprentice in the last 12 months to obtain a £1,500 grant for each of up to ten apprentices they take on, aged between 16 and 24. This is a valuable scheme and the government’s recent announcement in the Budget of plans to boost it is very welcome.

Business secretary Vince Cable recently said that he is committed to creating a ‘new norm’ whereby young school leavers will either go to university or get an apprenticeship. This is an excellent idea but it is important that metal fabrication skills don’t get overlooked in the process. In the future, it would be good to see UK-based companies working together collaboratively to create more opportunities for apprentices and to promote skills attainment more widely.

This year’s SkillWeld competition will provide an opportunity to do just that and I am looking forward to showcasing the best of welding talent to UK industry and the education sector. In doing so, I hope that this inspires more employers to invest in welding skills and gives  careers advisers and young people greater insight into some real engineering careers.