With an industry shortage of qualified engineers, apprentice training is every bit as important as ongoing instruction. Paul E Eden takes a look at the training schemes of Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group, Monarch Aircraft Engineering Limited and Swiss-AS.
Training is key to any safety-critical industry, particularly one as regulated and exacting as aerospace. Factor in the pace of development, particularly in IT systems, on the aircraft and in the maintenance hangar, and engineer or technician training becomes a substantial task for even the smallest MRO.
Today’s training systems are as diverse and varied as the MRO industry itself, with eLearning and online courses standing alongside more traditional classroom and on-the-job instruction.
At the very beginning of the process, learning through online resources is entirely natural for young people entering the industry, and yet the challenge of learning and applying traditional workshop skills is typically what excites them.
A young person achieving similar standards of excellence with the keyboard and the file, instilled with the realisation that aircraft engineering requires constant learning, and equipped not only to absorb knowledge from their mentors but also to challenge the accepted norm, is about as valuable an asset as any HR department could wish for.
Subsequently, there’s training for new systems, new procedures, health and safety, and in managing the latest MRO tools and techniques, digital and physical.
And although it’s easily overlooked, ‘currency training’ on familiar systems has the potential to improve efficiency and safety as it helps engineers avoid falling into bad habits, while refreshing their knowledge through exposure to the latest thinking.
In the beginning
Few aerospace companies have been running apprenticeship schemes longer than Cambridge, UK-based Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group (MADG). Still a family-run business, Marshall first offered apprenticeships in the automobile industry around a century ago, with aircraft engineering apprenticeships beginning in 1935/36.
Today, the Marshall AeroAcademy delivers Craft (for mechanical/structures and electrical/avionics fitters) and Technician (airframe/propulsion and electrical/avionics technical designers) apprenticeships, under its Advanced Apprenticeships scheme.
Competition for places in each annual intake is fierce and apprentice training manager, Liz Tillett says it means Marshall is able to choose the very best candidates.
Applications are received during January for that year’s new intake in September, mostly from school and college leavers, but despite this from a broad age range; the youngest of the current first-year group is 16, the oldest 48, retraining after deciding on a career change from elsewhere in the Marshall Group.
An apprenticeship requires four yours to complete and the current first-year intake numbers 31, with 73 apprentices across the active four years, all of them with guaranteed jobs at Marshall on successful graduation.
Alongside two days of classroom learning every week and rotations into various Marshall departments for business improvement training, first-year apprentices produce several pieces of practical work of increasing complexity, in the most part testing their metal-working skills but also involving a degree of electrical competence.
Centred on a dedicated workshop, the practical course is completed in around 40 weeks, depending on ability, and is designed to provide familiarity with hangar floor working practices. Tasks are allocated via ‘job cards’ requiring a level of technical knowledge to properly interpret and becoming deliberately less detailed as the course progresses to more complex work.
The materials for each task are picked from storage areas around the workshop as they might be in the hangar and while independent work is required, students are expected to realise their own deficiencies and actively seek help from their tutors whenever they are unsure.
Those same tutors assess every completed piece of work, a process the author witnessed as 21-year-old Alex sat patiently while his latest effort was compared to drawings and precisely measured for tolerances.
It says much about the course ethos, which encourages mishap reporting and openness in admitting errors, that when asked how he thought his work had gone, Alex’s initial reaction was not only to point out his less than perfect riveting but also to offer an explanation of where he’d gone wrong.
During 2017, the UK government introduced changes to apprenticeship funding, with employers having a pay bill in excess of £3 million per annum paying an apprentice levy. The levy funds an apprentice service, to which employers sign up for access to apprentice funding.
Ian Peart, AeroAcademy general manager, says: “Our apprenticeships are in line with the new standards introduced with the levy. Marshall is an employer/provider, with AeroAcademy as the education provider, combining industry and education in accordance with government guidelines.”
Marshall was among a group of industry ‘trailblazers’ that established the apprentice standards to which the AeroAcademy works, although it adds elements tailored for its own business requirements.
Establishing the standard was also about ensuring young people considering examination and, subsequently, career options would have solid information about engineering possibilities early enough in their decision-making process.
Indeed, Marshall is determined to influence young minds at an even earlier age, using its LaunchPad initiative to show children as young as eight, their parents and teachers, what aerospace engineering is all about.
The imitative has since expanded to become a regional programme, but with continued Marshall involvement, working hard to instil an engineering mindset that will ensure Marshall and other aerospace companies continue not only to attract the talent they need but also to have a pool from which to select it.
Simultaneously, Marshall is also doing more than most in the industry to attract girls and young women into aerospace engineering, with the ultimate aim of achieving an apprentice intake split evenly between genders.
Actively reaching out to girls, the company has sent Tillett and her team into schools, introducing the concept of engineering as a career choice and helping girls and their teachers understand what’s required.
But the ‘girls’ jobs’/‘boys’ jobs’ prejudice runs deep. Tillett recalls a teenager approaching the Marshall stand at a career fair and expressing her doubts over an engineering career on the basis that engineering was a ‘dirty job’.
Asked about her academic strengths, she revealed a talent for maths and physics, and then greeted with some surprise, Tillett suggested that engineering might be exactly her thing.
Peart agrees that the issues go beyond the children themselves, to teachers and parents, and Marshall does its very best to have them visit its Cambridge facility along with their pupils and offspring, at regular open days.
Back in the apprentice workshop, I asked 17-year-old Hannah, one of two females in her intake of 31 apprentices, why she applied for the programme. “It was my mum who suggested engineering. I hadn’t even considered it as an option until she mentioned it during my GCSEs [UK school examinations taken at age 16].”
Thanks to parental input, Hannah found her way to Marshall, but at a point where she’d already taken her examination options – the company came close to missing out on an obviously eloquent, talented apprentice.
Monarch Aircraft Engineering Limited (MAEL) is another of the UK’s most respected providers of engineering apprenticeships.
Asked about the scheme’s recruiting policy, managing director, Chris Dare responded in terms echoing those used at Marshall. “We’re proud to be part of a very strong Luton-based aerospace industry and we take our responsibility as a local business leader seriously. We run open days for schools and colleges, as well as groups including the Scouts, in when we aim to inspire young people to pursue a career in engineering. If they’re interested in aircraft engineering, then that’s even better!”
In March this year, MAEL announced a doubling of its apprenticeship scheme up to 40, a reflection of its own business needs and those of the industry in general. And also in keeping with Marshall, MAEL employs all its graduating apprentices, taking care of subsequent training through a variety of means.
“We have processes in place to ensure we’re training the right skills in the right areas. We use a personal development review process to identify individual training requirements, which are then consolidated and reviewed against our strategy and commercial plans to make sure our training programme is supporting the business needs. All of this is delivered by our Part 147 approved Training Academy.
“Our training needs are complex because as well as personnel changes, we are frequently having to adapt our skills to meet new customer requirements. With changing aircraft types and new and evolving technologies, having a consistent training programme is core to our business success. Training requirements vary from individual to individual and are currently satisfied through a number of media. We’ll soon be launching a new online training platform to support further, integrated learning.”
Swiss AviationSoftware (Swiss-AS) produces the AMOS MRO software suite, a tool that makes the desktop or mobile device at least as powerful as the wrench. AMOS includes multiple modules, some of them optional, to build comprehensive maintenance, stock control and management system.
Alongside regular AMOS updates and expansion, Swiss-AS delivers comprehensive ongoing training packages as well as instruction to new customers.
Iris Laplaze, senior manager training & documentation explains: “All Swiss-AS training is tailored to customer requirements. They choose between on-site classroom training and sessions with other customers in Basel. We also offer virtual classroom training for specific, usually advanced, topics, e-Learning and on-the-job training.
“The different training types can be combined in a package or worked individually, depending on the needs and knowledge level of individual learners or groups. We’re convinced that a combination of training types help maximise the learning experience for every individual.”
New customers typically begin with a System Awareness Session, known in-house as a KUAS. “It’s a high-level overview of AMOS, concentrating on data integrity and flow through the system, without going into too much detail on individual AMOS modules and functions. The objective of the KUAS is to provide the customer with an ‘awareness’ and overview of system possibilities.
“KUAS duration varies between four and nine days, depending on customer size and function, whether it’s pure CAMO, airline, a Part 145 organisation, or an MRO. For medium to large customer projects a Swiss-AS business consultant, dedicated to the new customer, is also present.”
Key User Training, in-depth instruction in individual modules, Engineering, Procurement, Finance, Maintenance and so on, generally follows KUAS. “Typically delivered on-site, it’s reserved for members of the customer’s project team and subject matter experts, all of whom will play an important role during their company’s AMOS implementation.
“They’ll take part in workshops for individual business areas, conducted by dedicated Swiss-AS business consultants before they begin using AMOS on a daily basis. Depending on customer requirements, Key User Training takes from two to 30 days maximum, divided across multiple topics.”
A final insert of end-user training is delivered shortly before AMOS goes live and how this is delivered is again down to customer preference. Swiss-AS offers instructor tuition for a ‘train-the-trainer’ programme, or its instructors simply deliver the end-user training. Customers typically opt for a combined solution.
Ongoing training for established AMOS users, catering for new staff, for example, is again very flexible. “Some customers prefer e-Learning, some send new staff to Basel for instruction and others train new staff internally, on the job. There’s also the option for a combination of e-learning, virtual classroom training and courses in Basel.”
For each of the two new AMOS releases every year, Swiss-AS publishes a What’s New in Version XX document, describing key functions and modules. Laplaze says for most customers this information, plus accompanying online resources, are sufficient for them to familiarise themselves with the new functionality.
When more major module changes are involved, however, “…we offer classroom training in Basel or on-site training on request. For smaller changes, we create virtual classroom courses. On average, customers upgrade to a new release every 18 months. Some request specific, tailored on-site ‘version upgrade training’, which also includes ‘refresher’ content.”
Similar training options are available to customers adding AMOS modules to their existing package. Given its huge functionality, it seems only sensible that AMOS customers should take refresher training from time to time and Swiss-AS encourages the AMOS Adoption Audit, carried out by the Business Consultant Department, to identify areas of inefficiency.
Depending on the audit findings, additional or refresher training might be suggested. Laplaze notes: “Customers who don’t opt for regular refresher training sometimes miss new functions, or get into bad habits.”
Back in Cambridge, Marshall teaches its apprentices to challenge the accepted norm, however long it has been accepted, and to never be afraid of suggesting where efficiency and safety could be improved.
Ian Peart and Liz Tillett agree that when the individual apprentice goes out to work in the company’s various business units, as they do throughout their four-year course, their approach to the work is often a little different to that of their mentors and Marshall pays careful attention to their modern, IT-savvy approach, which comes entirely naturally and facilitates ideas that might never occur to veteran operators.
Laplaze says that when it’s introducing AMOS to a company, Swiss-AS occasionally encounters challenges with individual staff. “It can be difficult to have them understand that although they’ve done something a specific way for 20 years or more, in AMOS the task might be done differently and most of the time the new method is easier and more efficient.
“In the majority of cases even the most sceptical trainee is convinced of the software’s capability by the end of a training day, but overcoming those challenges is one reason why our instructors need a deep knowledge of the airline business. Once a trainee has understood the AMOS philosophy, they find it fairly easy to work their way through the different AMOS functions since the software is quite intuitive. Training handouts also provide step-by-step instructions that help the trainee follow the learning path.”
Training for the future
Through its LaunchPad and outreach programmes, Marshall reaches and identifies potential talent in children as young as eight, then remains in contact with them until school-leaving age. It represents a tremendous recruitment and training investment, with no guarantee that any of them will enter its apprentice scheme.
Under the levy system, there’s also no assurance that apprentice graduates will take up their jobs with the company – a Marshall apprentice demands respect throughout the industry.
Ian Peart says: “In the next three or four months we hope to gain main provider approval under the levy. It’ll give us the opportunity to recruit apprentices for other selected businesses, offering to train apprentices for our customers. Marshall’s been training apprentices for 96 years and we’re good at it, but we’re constantly evolving the programme and offering our expertise to others makes sense.”
The rules of the Apprenticeship Service mean there would be no profit in the effort, although all costs would be covered, so why expand at all? Liz Tillett says: “It’s not about money, it’s because we need those skills coming through for the industry’s future.”
“This is a surprisingly small industry, but one of which we in the UK are very proud. We’re seeing opportunities to remain in aerospace if we grasp them. If we don’t have the skills, we’ll lose our industry capability and that’s unthinkable,” Peart concludes.