The lucky few who will always be in demand

Apprentice Sam Jennings working on a Stingray torpedo at Defence Munitions Gosport. Picture: Steve Reid (124120-395)
Apprentice Sam Jennings working on a Stingray torpedo at Defence Munitions Gosport. Picture: Steve Reid (124120-395)
James Taylor at his desk in his office at 116 High Street, Old Portsmouth.

Those halcyon days when pen and paper just worked!

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Whether they are getting to grips with Sting Ray torpedoes or catching up on study for one of their many qualifications, apprentices at Defence Munitions Gosport are always busy.

Those on the three-year advanced apprenticeship in mechanical engineering are training to become the next generation of defence engineers.

Apprentice Sophie Clelland being monitored by apprentice master Alan Issac. Picture: Steve Reid (124120-325)

Apprentice Sophie Clelland being monitored by apprentice master Alan Issac. Picture: Steve Reid (124120-325)

They work hard, quickly moving from learning engineering basics to working on small arms and weapons systems.

But getting onto the Ministry of Defence scheme is no easy task.

Each year just six people are chosen from a pool of 150 candidates who are invited to the depot, off Fareham Road, Gosport, for initial selection.

During selection they are tested for their aptitude for engineering, along with English and maths skills.

Bosses sift the list down to 35 candidates who are then interviewed for the places, with a new intake starting in August each year.

The talented apprentices who finish the scheme are awarded MoD Deeds, which will ensure they will be in demand by both the defence industry and other engineering firms if they do not get a job within Defence Equipment and Support.

Kevin Haydock, the apprentice training officer at the depot, said the scheme, which was given an outstanding – the top mark possible – in an Ofsted report last month, secures the futures of both the depot and the apprentices.

‘It’s a specialist area and we need to ensure that we continue to bring people through,’ he said.

‘It’s just to provide continuous new blood into the work that we do.

‘Anybody that goes out with a signed set of MoD deeds for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering is very highly sought-after, which is why when people do decide they want to move on, they will be in a job very quickly because of the qualifications they’ve got.

‘This is why we keep telling them they’re so lucky to get it. Very few people get apprenticeship schemes nowadays anyway.

‘To be such a good scheme and to offer what we offer, is very sought-after, which is why we have so many people trying to apply.’

And the skilled apprentices have wowed nationally too, winning MoD awards, including prizes in both categories of the Tom Nevard Memorial Competition, which puts skills to the test in the mechanical, hand skills and general fitting category and an engineering programme management team event.

Five apprentices from the Gosport depot competed in the 2012 edition, taking home two first places and three runner-up positions, bringing the depot’s total collection of prizes from that competition alone to 32 since 2006.

Past apprentices have also repeatedly won the MoD’s title of Apprentice of the Year, and the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation Medal.

Phase three apprentices Andy Leadbeater, 24, and Sam Jennings, 20, won that competition in 2012 with a toolbox they designed and made.

The apprentices’ wins come after their first phase of training, which sees them attend Fareham College for a year.

There they start to study for either a two-year BTEC Level 3 in mechanical engineering or a two-year degree level HNC in the subject if they have already studied the BTEC, along with an NVQ level two in Performing Engineering Operations.

Once they have picked up workshop skills at the college, along with key skills in maths and ICT, they then move to the depot to complete five work placements during phases two and three, along with studying for a mechanical manufacturing engineering Level 3 NVQ.

Each placement lasts four months and sees apprentices learn from experienced apprentice masters in the multiple workshops at the depot.

It is here they seize the chance to learn about kit destined for use by the armed forces, including working on missiles and torpedoes in the weapon systems section and miniguns in the small arms section.

They also work with Briggs Equipment, a firm that maintains the trailers and tractors used at the depot.

Phase three apprentice Sophie Clelland, 21, from Gosport, was busy learning how to make repairs to a canister from apprentice master Alan Issac, while on her engineering maintenance placement.

She said: ‘It’s a challenge, I expected it to be a challenge, especially on the HNC.

‘In some of the sections I’ve been in, there’s a slower pace to make sure everything’s right. I’ve learned how to organise myself.

‘Basically I dithered a lot but I’ve managed to learn how to use my time better and work with people of different age groups.

‘It’s intimidating at times when you are the only female in the whole section – sometimes you are the only female but they do help you out, they’re caring.’

And the apprentices learn to work together right from the start, as each new intake takes part in a week-long resource and initiative training course in Dorset.

The group of six spend the week doing outward bound activities, including Canadian canoeing, high rope courses and problem solving tasks in an effort to bond as a team. The current third phase apprentices will face a tougher challenge next month, as they put their teamwork and organisational skills to the test, managing a climb up Snowdon on their own.

Mr Haydock said: ‘Particularly in that first one when they don’t know each other and they sleep out under bashers for three nights and cook their own food, and do everything for themselves, they work as a team.

‘The third phase one, whilst they’re still working as a team, comes when they’ve been together for nearly three years so they’re quite used to each other.

‘This is more about the management of the project, the management of the whole week.’