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Nurturing that engineering spark

ATG executives explain how they nurture their apprentices, helping them to become well-rounded engineers.

Image of the current apprentices at ATG

After completing an electrical apprenticeship at the age of 16, Automated Technology Group (ATG) CEO Andrew Robinson knew he was on the right career path. As a child playing with LEGO® and Meccano, he always wanted to make his creations do more and turned this passion into the business he runs today. “I wanted flashing lights and motors to make things move, and that’s really what we do now,” he says. ATG, a supplier of control and power solutions, was set up by Andrew 20 years ago, with its headquarters in the heart of Bedfordshire’s countryside. “The skill of this business is making equipment work to get maximum value and productivity out of it,” he says. “We work in lots of different business sectors with customers worldwide, and we’re almost like the ‘secret ingredient’ in their recipe for success. We do a lot of work with companies like Mini, JLR, Heathrow Airport, BAE Systems and Cadbury’s. We look at the technology that’s already out there and see how we can optimise it.”

Supporting the next generation

After his own apprenticeship experience, Andrew was keen to support apprentices coming into his business. “Within the first year of starting the business we took on our first apprentice, and I’m really passionate to ensure we give the opportunity to youngsters,” he says. “We always find that when you get people at that young age and they have the right aptitude and motivation, they’re going to be your best engineers and the best people for the business. “We need those people who were fascinated by LEGO® as a child; if we can motivate someone to actually do that in real life – make real robots move, make real car factories and airports work, if we can get that spark in them, then they’re going to make really good apprentices with us.” However, the company struggles to find people with that right ‘spark’. ATG had 170 applicants in 2015, but only took on 15 new apprentices. “Pre-teens tend to be into the more practical stuff, but once they’re teenagers that spark sort of gets knocked out of them and they’d rather play computer games,” says Andrew. “We want to make them more aware of what we do and that it’s cool, but doing this can be difficult.”

The Academy

To get students to consider an apprenticeship over university, four years ago ATG made the decision to give its scheme a brand, and the ‘Academy’ was born. Then, last summer, the apprenticeship received IET approval. “Being associated with the IET, we think, is the best way to elevate the standard of our apprenticeship. It’s been really well received internally, not just with the apprentices, but with the engineers as well. We’re really proud that our Academy is seen and held in such high standings,” Andrew says. “We invite potential apprentices to an assessment day which we’ve honed to become something that we think is stringent, but also quite fun and exciting to engage them. “We don’t want just academics or just practical people, we want people that can cross that boundary and they’re quite hard to come by. I think that’s a benefit we’ve got with the apprenticeship scheme, we can choose people with the academic flair, but also still have that passion for practicality and ensure that both those abilities are developed. And you can’t always get that type of training in a formal process,” he notes.

Understanding the business and gaining core skills

For the first two years, the apprentices rotate around the various different departments in the business and learn the core skills for each. “We treat them as employees,” Andrew says. “We don’t just chuck them in a classroom and lecture them, they work on real projects alongside experienced engineers, although we do have dedicated trainers to support them. We also get them out and about, attending site visits to see what is needed customer-side as well. Because of the way we run the Academy and the diverse experience that they get throughout the business, we’re able to nurture our apprentices to become valuable members of staff,” continues Training Manager Pauline Nichols. “We are managing to pick up people that haven’t gone down the academic route, which gives them the same opportunity to develop their skills from a younger age.”

Promoting professional development

“An apprentice coming to us and following our structured programme - going to college and getting the academic qualifications to match the practical training - then getting the stamp from the IET, and potentially going on to become a Chartered Engineer, gives them, I think, a much higher standing in the community,” Andrew continues. “Once an individual has finished their apprenticeship, they become a trainee engineer with us and we’re hoping they can then use the IET’s Career Manager to log their Continuing Professional Development (CPD), which will help them move on to professional registration when they’re ready,” adds Pauline.