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Digital savvy apprentices help BAE Systems build the shipyard of the future

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Engineering giant BAE Systems is breaking barriers for young people to get on board apprenticeships in its mission to find the next generation of shipbuilding talent.  

One of Glasgow’s biggest employers, BAE Systems runs on apprentices. The engineering giant, with sites on both sides of the Clyde, is currently building eight type 26 frigates for the Royal Navy and this full order book means a five year surge in apprentice numbers. 

The business currently has 600 Modern Apprentices, 100 Graduate Apprentices and 12 Foundation Apprentices across their sites, which accounts for more than 15% of BAE Systems’ workforce. 

Apprentices work in every corner of the business in 10 separate craft and trade areas, design and systems engineering, project management and supply chain as well as admin areas such as IT, HR and finance. Last year, the company added quality and quantity surveying apprenticeships.  

By next year there will be nearly 1000 apprentices working at BAE Systems across 29 different career paths. 

The company is also building its own Advanced Shipbuilding Academy to deliver specific courses and have invested in more than £100,000 in the latest augmented reality training equipment. 

John Burnett, Early Careers Manager, explained that this investment in its apprenticeships programme is what it takes to fill the UK-wide skills gap. “There is a massive shortage of skilled labour across all engineering markets, whether it’s Aberdeen and the rigs, offshore wind turbines or manufacturing. 

“Growing our own through apprenticeships to address the skills we need is the best solution.” 

BAE’s apprenticeship recruitment process starts in primary schools, with an education outreach team telling school children about the opportunities available via apprenticeships and offering tours of the shipyard. 

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The company works hard at challenging perceptions young people and parents have of working in shipbuilding. John and his team also work to attract more women and ethnic minorities into the company through apprenticeships, as well as youngsters who might not have thought about engineering as a career choice. 

John explained: “Shipyards have changed and they are much safer now and we are trying to promote that, particularly to parents, who might see shipyards as a dangerous, male-dominated environment.” 

Last year, around 40 of the new apprentices were women and John plans to keep pushing this number up. There are also more apprentices from black and minority ethnic communities in the yards than ever before. 

Knowing that role models are important, BAE Systems now has more women working in the early careers team, looking after apprentices.  

John, who started in shipbuilding in 1977, has seen huge changes during his career. And he’s excited to watch the new generation of apprentices bring their digital skills to this traditional industry. 

Apprentices who have grown up in the online world are key to creating the digital shipyard of the future. John explained: “They used to get into trouble every day for being on their phones. Now we’re looking at using their phones to access jobs and get them signed off. 

“They are IT literate straight away. The apprentices show us what to do when something breaks down. They’ve got the confidence to use IT and, rather than punish it, as a business we need to embrace it and start utilising their skills. 

“The natural skills the apprentices have give us an advantage that the company can use. Digital is massive and the young people are teaching everybody as they go. 

“They have still got to learn the fundamentals of how to build a ship but, the new generation of ships will use traditional craft skills but in a modern technological way, using the latest programmes for drawing and design.” 

It’s this commitment to upskilling the next generation that has won BAE Systems a place on the shortlist in the Scottish Apprenticeship Awards in the Large Apprentice Employer of the Year category sponsored by Anderson Strathern. 

John summed it up: “BAE Systems needs to get on board with addressing our skills needs or we’ll be left behind and apprentices have a key role in making this happen.” 

The winner of the Large Apprentice Employer category sponsored by Anderson Strathern will be revealed during Scottish Apprenticeship Week, which takes place from 4 to 8 March. Find out more about the award finalists and the event by visiting 

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