Finding competent engineers is difficult, and that’s one of the reasons that Go-Ahead London is investing so much in apprenticeships that are successfully developing the technicians of tomorrow
Investing in staff and developing their skills is the centrepiece of a good business plan, and it can be done through practical tuition, classroom time, or external training.
Go-Ahead London, the capital’s largest bus operator, combines all three into its engineering apprenticeship programme. It has the pick of competent, technically-minded youngsters, and the scheme delivers results.
“Some of the most successful careers in our business in recent years began with an apprenticeship,” says Chief Engineer Chris McKeown.
“We are very proud of the scheme. It is specific to our needs and provides us with a core of technically aware, highly capable engineering recruits.
“That’s because we don’t focus on them obtaining a qualification. What I want is for apprentices to receive a comprehensive education. If they do that, a qualification is a natural consequence.”
Engineering apprenticeships begin for most – but not all – recruits in their late teens. Around 10-12 are selected each year, and the scheme is heavily over-subscribed, says Engineering Training Manager Gerry Fleming.
“This year, for 10 positions, we received over 90 applications. We held 54 first stage interviews and 40 second interviews. We then identified 14 very good people who came back again to give a vehicle-related technical presentation.”
The topic may be something that the candidate has learned at college, or it may be about something that they have researched. Sometimes the results are unusual, but a recent presentation gave an indication of where that particular apprentice’s career may lie.
“One candidate spoke about fleet management. Initially we thought that he had missed the point, but we let him continue. He talked about MoTs, service scheduling and the like,” says Gerry.
“We listened to him and asked him a few questions. He hadn’t done quite what we had asked, but he had done something outside the box. Looking forward, he could make a potential engineering manager. He has the right mindset.”
Gerry adds that a candidate’s appearance is not the most important thing when they deliver a presentation. Rather, content is key. “We see applicants in their school uniform, because they don’t own a suit. Our focus is on recruiting apprentices who will become the best technicians possible.”
On the ladder
The three-year apprenticeship course includes classroom tuition, practical training in garages, and external coaching at the S&B Automotive Academy in Bristol. Courses at OEMs are also included.
“Apprentices are at garages more than they are at college; the latter is done in full-week blocks,” says Chris, who changed the apprenticeship provider to S&B after coming into post.
“Our challenge is to make sure that youngsters who complete their apprenticeship have a high level of both electrical and mechanical competence.
#”When they go to garages, they must learn about diagnostic equipment, and they won’t do that if they can’t use it properly.”
Go-Ahead London’s engineering apprenticeship programme was overhauled in 2003/04, and a benefit of its long-term approach is being seen with current apprentices.
“Some workshop managers are ex-apprentices themselves, so they know what the course requires. It’s easier to ensure that apprentices receive adequate exposure in garages because of that. Those workshop managers understand the need for them to learn and get their hands dirty,” says Chris.
Some of Go-Ahead London’s longer-serving engineers can trace their careers back to London Transport (LT) days. LT’s engineering apprenticeship was unrivalled, but it led to some stereotypical attitudes among senior staff.
Changing those has been a priority, says Chris, but doing so relies as much on apprentices proving themselves when in garages as any policy that the operator introduces.
“When apprentices are in garages, they are mentored, and we choose mentors carefully. They share a great deal of experience. Not everyone is suited to that task, but when apprentices complete their course, they have learned a huge amount.”
Apprentice Carlos Mota, 32, confirms that this is how it works in practice. Now in his second year, Carlos applied after an earlier career in hospitality, and he is enjoying life so far.
“Someone is always available to help, and that makes a big difference. We go through trial and error, and getting existing staff to trust apprentices is important. But once they do, and appreciate what we are capable of, they are helpful and willing to share knowledge.”
No easy ride
Chris and Gerry agree that Go-Ahead London’s apprenticeship course is tough. Just turning up is not sufficient; to succeed requires commitment. But for those that toe the line and work hard, the rewards are there to be had.
“Our Engineering Director, Richard Harrington, began his career as an apprentice. Now he is responsible for a fleet of well over 1,000 vehicles that includes some of the most technologically advanced buses in the world,” says Chris.
“That’s an important thing for apprentices. We run a huge variety of types; one day they could be working on a Euro 3 training bus, and the next they could be assigned to a Euro 6 hybrid or an EV.”
Once their apprenticeship is complete, recruits become Senior Vehicle Engineers. Below that rank are Vehicle Engineers and Service Engineers.
That means that they are skilled technicians, and Go-Ahead aims to take advantage of the knowledge that they have acquired.
“I have challenged workshop managers not to contract out heavy work. I wanted to know why we were not doing things like engine rebuilds in-house; we have the ability to do so, but we were contracting it out at considerable cost,” says Chris.
“At New Cross garage, some of our apprentices have been stripping and rebuilding Euro 3 engines. We don’t want to spend a lot, because those buses have a limited lifespan with us, so rather than using a contractor I decided that our own staff would do it.
“They have the capability, and it keeps them interested. If an apprentice or a former apprentice does little more than changing oil and filters, they will not find that fulfilling. Those are jobs for more junior engineers.
“Via our computer-based training system we show them how to diagnose major faults, and doing that in practice keeps them interested.
“We could give them the answers in training, but part of being an engineer is diagnosing problems that you’ve never seen before. That includes referring to the manual, something that we encourage.”
The potential is there
Key for Go-Ahead London is not a candidate’s educational achievements. Instead, it is their attitude and willingness to learn; if they have both, the engineering apprenticeship programme has the potential to take them to the top.
“Apprentices only get out what they put in. But not everybody can, or wants to, become a manager. We need good technicians in garages with a comprehensive knowledge and ability and who can address the most complex of problems,” says Chris.
“Our apprenticeship programme provides them with that, and as part of the learning process we instil in them knowledge of our customer’s contractual demands, lost mileage and so on.
“It is equally important for them to understand that as it is how to repair a bus. If they don’t, they won’t make the right decisions for the business.
“And that’s what it’s about: Securing our business for the future. We invest a lot in apprenticeships, and I am delighted to see it paying off.”