It is a Thursday morning and apprentices are hard at work at the new Engineering Skills Academy at Lakes College.  

The 800 square metre facility is filled with the sound of machinery as the youngsters get to grips with honing their skills.  

However, it is hoped the group now concentrating on their lathes and drills will be just the first of many who will use the academy in the coming years, making a significant contribution to closing the skills gap in the county.  

Work began on the facility - which has capacity to teach 100 people at any one time and sits in the college’s existing Construction Skills Centre - in September last year and it officially opens this month.  

It has been developed in response to the skills requirement from local employers including Shepley Group, West Cumberland Engineering, Mitie, National Nuclear Laboratory, Balfour Beatty, Responsive Group, Morgan Sindall and Par Systems.  

“It is responding to the broader skills needed in nuclear, engineering and manufacturing,” says Gary Martin, director of curriculum and skills at the college, in Lillyhall. 

He says the centre provides apprentices with an in-depth introduction to engineering for one year before they join their employer in the workplace. 

“In the past learners would traditionally come to college one day a week and then spend the rest in their workplaces,” says Gary. 

“What this model allows us to do is for them to come for a full first year and develop their skills and behaviours in a controlled environment.” 

As well as studying as apprentices, young people can join straight from school to do study programmes covering vocational skills and core subjects such as maths and English.  

People can also come to the academy to study from sixth form or as mature apprentices later in their careers.  

“It’s a flexible offer that aligns with the employers’ needs,” says Gary.  

Around 3,500 people use Lakes College’s campus, with 275 people studying engineering, including around 25 apprentices who use the new facility.  

The apprentices are all working to a specific standard on a minimum 18-month or maximum four-year apprenticeship. 

Apprentice numbers using the facility are set to double this year and continue to grow.  

The college is also running the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board scholarship programme which will train young people in basic skills even if they are not on an apprenticeship.  

Alongside engineering and manufacturing people are also taught general skills such as how to write a CV or attend an interview.  

“This facility represents work,” says Gary.  

“You’ve got to get here on time, your attendance is reported to your employer, you’ve got to be resilient. They are employed by a range of companies and they are treated as though they are at work.” 

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The facility itself was formerly used to teach brickwork but is now filled with lathes, CNC machines and welding and fabrication equipment as well as a mezzanine classroom for teaching and theory work. 

It can be rearranged and equipped as necessary to meet demands of employers.  

“If an employer suddenly said we have a robotics requirement then we could reconfigure this area for them to use,” says Gary.  

Stephen Hamer, curriculum operational leader at the Engineering Skills Academy, did his own apprenticeship working for the Ministry of Defence at Royal Ordnance in Blackburn, before following a career variously building coaches, fitting airframes and working in advanced composites. 

He began working in education in Cumbria 17 years ago and hopes to give learners as good a grounding as he had in his own apprenticeship. 

“I had a good experience with my education at Royal Ordnance,” he says.  

“We had a dedicated training centre with its own staff. It was always about making you the best person you could be. 

“It can be a slow process because you don’t know what background people are coming from and what behaviours are expected in their homes. 

“What we’ve got to do is build that slowly over the first few months so that when they leave here there’s a big difference.  

“It’s no good having someone who is an absolute genius with a lathe who can’t come to work on time or can’t communicate with people. It builds them as a person so they grow in confidence.” 

One of the apprentices concentrating hard on her lathe work is Sophie Bowe, 17, from Workington. 

Sophie studied at the Energy Coast UTC, near Workington, where a tutor recommended she apply for an apprenticeship with Par Systems, based in Lillyhall, which makes remote handling systems and robotics for use in the nuclear industry. 

“I grew up on a farm and I grew up around tractors and my dad and all my uncles have always been hands-on,” says Sophie. 

“I’ve always wanted to go into engineering.” 

She is now in the first year of a four-year maintenance technician apprenticeship with the company.  

“I’m learning everything in college that will help me on the job,” she says. 

In time, Sophie’s job will entail carrying out repairs and maintenance on remote handling systems on the Sellafield site.  

For now she is one of eight female apprentices at the Engineering Skills Academy. 

“We all get along really well and it’s a good work environment here,” she says. 

“You’re learning new skills all the time and everything that you do here fits together and it all links to my work.  

“I’ve still got classroom days in here and I’m still getting my maths in and qualifications out of it but also getting hands-on experience with the potential of a job at the end.” 

John McGibbon, managing director at Par Systems, says the academy could make a big dent in the numbers of skilled workers required by local industry. 

However, he says it is important that more employers begin taking on apprentices in order to grow the pool for the future.  

“We need roughly 10,000 engineers to keep the local economy going,” says John. 

“Taking a hundred a year is definitely going to help but we need a lot more than that to fill the current vacancies and future vacancies.” 

Par Systems is taking on 10 work experience students this year and has also taken on two apprentices. 

Over the next three years the number of apprentices at the business may rise to as many as eight out of a total staff of 30.  

“The rate isn’t determined by how many apprentices you can get, it’s how many people can train them,” says John.  

“A good grounding here is the first step but then you’ve got to put them with a highly skilled person to learn what they’re actually doing. The first year here is fantastic, but you need to look after two, three and four to get the finished article. 

“Taking them on at a young age and bringing them through that way is definitely the best thing we do and the numbers that could be trained here could fulfil our need quite easily, as long as enough businesses buy into it.”