This week (7-13 February 2022) is National Apprenticeship Week – a country-wide celebration of the benefits and opportunities that apprenticeships bring to individuals and businesses.

The annual campaign highlights how technical education can equip people with the skills and knowledge for a rewarding career, and help employers develop a ‘future-ready’ workforce.

Here, Sutton-in-Ashfield company AF Switchgear details how apprenticeships are helping the growing company to flourish.

Mike Ratcliffe, operations manager at AF Switchgear, sings the praises highly of apprentices currently employed by the company. He has seen many apprentices gain a wealth of electrical engineering, IT and admin skills, over the eight years that they have worked with West Nottinghamshire College.

The Huthwaite-based company, established in 1975, designs and maintains switch gear and control panels for the distribution and supply to equipment in key areas of hospitals, schools, data centres, office complexes and more. The business, which employs around 175 employees, has seen a real growth in the past few years with the company expanding to take on two other nearby factories which encompass fabrication work, powder coat painting, stores and warehouses. The AF group employs around 220 employees.

Despite the last couple of years which have “brought challenges with Brexit and COVID-19 to the business”, Mike is confident that his apprentices have done nothing but thrive.

He said: “Our apprentices have to have very specific sets of skills for the business. We enjoy helping them to learn these skills, combined with their college learning and seeing them develop with the company. We pretty much tailor-make our apprentices to fit the company’s needs while encouraging them to become a very capable and creative employee.”

As well as the skills that are naturally gained in the workplace and through the learning journey at college, Mike expects the apprentices to come equipped with a few key characteristics and strengths as a foundation for beginning their employment with the company.

“Academically it’s essential to have people join us with a grade 4 in maths and English and IT. At interview we talk about what is driving the individual to want to work in this area. It might be they’ve previously helped dad in the home or workshop and found a passion for engineering, I like to hear about their social skills so that they can adapt to the teamwork ethos at work. I also like to hear how their time management skills are developing as this is important.

“To hear a confident individual and listening to what they want to do with their future, really helps us to see the basis of a future employer and get an idea of their personalities.”

Two of the advanced manufacturing and engineering apprentices who are working confidently at AF Switchgear are female apprentices Holly Parker-Tinklin, 18, and Fernie Cooling, 27.

As female electrical panel fitters working in a predominantly male engineering setting, these young women are working very confidently and efficiently through their apprenticeship. Holly joined the company five months ago closely followed by Fernie, a month later. 

Advanced manufacturing and engineering apprentices Holly Parker-Tinklin (left) and Fernie Cooling.

Holly said: “Our roles involve make sure all panels are wired up and tested before being shipped out. We have to ensure what we produce is perfect. There are many procedures that go into making a panel and our job is that final step. We really enjoy what we do. As well as working full-time here we attend college one day a week to learn the engineering theory, health and safety and mechanical systems.

“When I began here I was the only female on the shop floor. It was daunting at first but I soon found my feet and it was brilliant when Fernie joined me a month later. We’re are a great little team and there’s nothing that the men can do that we can’t – we sometimes say we do it better!”

Fernie’s enthusiasm matches Holly’s. She said: “Holly and I are each other’s support network. We’re both really interested in engineering and we’d like to progress here after the apprenticeship. Right now we’re in such a good position that we are earning a wage and learning the trade for free.

“For anyone who’s more mature like I am and you’re concerned about financial matters, don’t worry as your wages improve year on year as you progress and then there are often in-roads to develop and progress within a company.”

Holly added: “Personally taking on the apprenticeship is the best thing I have ever decided to do and I can’t imagine doing anything different now.”

Fellow Level 3 manufacturing and engineer apprentice Jake Tilley, 18, from Sutton-in-Ashfield, has worked at the company for two and a half years. Fresh from leaving school, Jake spotted the apprenticeship vacancy on the government’s website and applied through West Nottinghamshire College.

Level 3 manufacturing and engineering apprentice Jake Tilley

He said: “I was offered an interview and then a bit of a ‘test day’ where I came into the business to perform an engineering test and I was fortunate to be offered the job.”

Jake began studying on the Level 2 apprenticeship and advanced to the Level 3 last September and implements his learning into his electrical fitter role at the factory.

Jake said: “Even though this level is more complex, I am enjoying seeing how what I learn at college can be rolled over into my daily job. The engineering centre at college is great too as the facilities have everything you need and all the tutors are such a help.”

Discussing how different work and studies were during the height of the pandemic, Jake and his peers had to stop attending college as physical lessons were postponed. However, Mike and his team prepared a study room for the apprentices so that they could still meet their tutor via Microsoft Teams.

Jake said: “We could still get on with our coursework with our teachers and could still get everything done that we needed to, so that was really reassuring. Work duties went on as normal but we just abided by the social distancing and mask regulations.”

For Jake, his confidence has grown over the last couple of years, and he’s exploring all different paths and opportunities that his job could move onto.

He said: “There are so many routes to follow – either CAD engineering, copper designing, sales, technicians or working out on site. I’ve not set my heart on anything in particular yet as I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now so I’ll see what happens in the next few years. I’m very fortunate to be getting on-the-job experience and paid training right now.

“I’d definitely recommend the apprenticeship route to school-leavers because of all of this experience and support I am getting right now. It’s really working for me. My confidence, meeting new people and making new friends has all improved for me.”

Another young apprentice who discovered how work and studies proved to be the best combination is seventeen-year-old customer service apprentice Annie Kirk. Annie, from Tibshelf, in Derbyshire, has worked as a business administrator since 2020 and has just completed the apprenticeship programme.

She said: “In my role I am responsible for doing the printing, scanning and taking work folders across to staff as well as creating labels for all the panels on the shop floor. It’s very varied and I’m never sat down for long. I have to be accurate in my skills when I am ordering parts for the factory too.

Customer service apprentice Annie Kirk

“I need a lot of patience in this role as I deal with so many different people both in the business and externally on the phone and I feel I have the qualities to remain calm in a stressful situation – I’m good at reading a situation well and reacting appropriately.

Throughout her apprenticeship Annie’s tutors came out to the business to assess her each month and set her the workbook assessments. The company enabled her to work one afternoon a week on her projects and workbooks, which gave her that flexibility to balance her job and studies.

She said: “I’m quite interested in doing another course – maybe accountancy. AF Switchgear have been really supportive throughout my studies and always checked in with me to see that I was coping well with both my workload and assignments.

“In the future I would like to stay here for a while as I feel very settled and I enjoy office work.”

Annie added: “What I loved about being on an apprenticeship was getting a wage. This meant I could pay for my driving lessons and run a car, as well as give my mum some board and I began saving for a house. I got my independence and that felt great. The change from being at school, to being at work was just what I needed. It was a new chapter and I am so happy I took that step.”

Mike Ratcliffe sums up the value of apprentices. He said: “I always tell apprentices to aim to make their mark while they’re here. If they demonstrate they have skills and abilities and a desire to try other areas of the business, then opportunities for personal development will follow.

“We don’t want to lose apprentices – we want to train them, take the time and effort into hopefully keeping them working here afterwards to support the company as we grow. It’s vital to develop our workforce and provide them with the latest training so they can key this into the roles they do.

“I would implore any business to look at taking on apprentices because they would soon realise the great benefits to having them on the workforce. Some people may feel they would be a cost, a burden or that they would slow the business down. This really isn’t the case – I can assure anyone just how soon apprentices have a positive input into a business. Apprentices really do help grow your business and it gives you the chance to develop an individual from grass roots into a very productive, valuable employee.”

Head of employer engagement at West Nottinghamshire College, Karen Millward, said: “Working with the team at AF Switchgear is an exciting part of our recruitment calendar. Every year, we start the process by putting out adverts for candidates to apply and every year we are met with an overwhelming response.

“Local candidates understand that these vacancies come round every year and demand for places within this business is high. We work with Mike and his team to create a recruitment extravaganza including screening sessions, aptitude tests and open evenings on site at the place of employment.

“West Notts College is proud to partner year after year with AF Switchgear and to be part of the programme creating the next generation in engineering.” 

Some of the apprentices at AF Switchgear, with operations manager Mike Ratcliffe (centre)
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