06 May 2003
DMJ looks at how the training programme at the Defence Aviation Repair Authority’s St Athan site is successfully preparing recruits for a career in aircraft engineering.
Last year, DMJ reported on the progress made by the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA) at St Athan in South Wales and trailed a further article on one of the key factors in their success – their approach to training and, in particular, their apprentice programme. This is run by the DARA Training Centre (DTC), operating from a converted hangar on the St Athan site, equipped with the normal range of mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering tools and machinery. But there is a substantial difference to other training establishments: DTC has three Bulldog propeller/piston–engined basic flying training aircraft, four Jet Provost advanced flying trainers, one Dominie aircrew navigational trainer and two Jaguar ground attack aircraft (an aircraft still in operational service with the RAF). These Ground Instructional Aircraft (GIA) have operational systems, providing students with realistic and valuable 'hands-on' experience of a/c maintenance. This includes functional testing of hydraulics, powered flying controls, undercarriage and electrical systems, plus the ground running of aero engines.
The role of DTC
All instructional staff are ex-RAF technicians, each with more than 20 years' experience of aircraft engineering maintenance and personnel management. The main role and function of DTC St Athan is to train MOD/DARA youth and adult apprentices in aircraft mechanical engineering disciplines (airframe/propulsion dual trade and electrical) to DARA technician status, and this is the centre's mission statement. Historically, DTC has offered a MOD Standards-Based Apprentice Training (SBAT) programme, and a three and a half year Modern Apprenticeship Scheme. These programmes are not only concerned with an apprentice's technical skills and abilities but take into consideration the wider development of the student's character. To this end, apprentices are encouraged to develop leadership and team working skills, and forge links with the wider community.
Recent projects have included Ty-Hafan Children’s Hospice, the Storey Arms Outdoor Pursuits/Activities Centre and the United World College of the Atlantic, St Donat’s Castle, Llantwit Major.
As of September 2002, the format of the apprenticeship took on a new look and went to sponsorship. Potential apprentices are sponsored for one year at Barry College, where they will complete a relevant syllabus of training to prepare for a full-time apprenticeship. Successful candidates of the scheme will be offered a place at the DTC to satisfy the DARA business needs. These chosen individuals then spend a year in the Training Centre at St Athan, where they will cover theoretical and practical elements of aircraft engineering before progressing to on-the-job training in the business units. This programme embraces all the previous training concepts, as well as satisfying the MOD Standards-Based Training and Advanced Modern Apprenticeship frameworks.
The training given to DTC apprentices starts with the basics of metal shaping – cutting, squaring up and polishing the surfaces of aluminium bars. It then moves rapidly on to the more sophisticated skills needed for modern aeronautical and electronic engineers, but it is still refreshing to find that the underlying skills are as highly valued as they were in the heydays of British engineering achievement. Apprentice numbers have varied from year to year – as budgetary constraints or future employment needs have changed. In 2002, DTC took on 33 trainees and plans to recruit 25 in 2003.
The provision of apprentice training is only part of the DTC function and of DARA's commitment to encouraging youngsters to develop an interest in aeronautical engineering. In a joint effort with a number of education business partnerships and SETPOINT Wales, a number of diverse and exciting projects have been designed and introduced to students ranging from Year 6 through to university graduates. There are also programmes designed to help with the personal and professional development of teaching staff.
These activities are aimed at encouraging and developing engineering enthusiasm, whilst emphasising the need for team building and communication skills. Amongst the
large number of projects available, the DARA Aeronautical Challenge is now in its third year and has reached over 3,500 students in a large number of schools throughout Wales; each school participating sends its winning team to compete in a final challenge, usually in June, at DARA
St Athan. The top prize is an air experience flight from Cardiff Wales Airport.
The work experience programme can now sustain an annual intake of over 200 students; since the start of DARA's commitment to work related education, there have been some noticeable changes as to the acceptance of engineering as a future career for both sexes. When students have either visited DARA or projects have been taken into schools, more relevant questions are being asked as to the qualifications required and the opportunities available. Younger students are enquiring about the next project they can get involved in and there is a noticeable enthusiasm when hand skills are required. WISE (Women In to Science and Engineering) is a full day programme for Year Group 9, designed to focus on 'hands-on' experience, involving a variety of practical tasks; meeting other female engineers during the day provides a forum to discuss career opportunities in the aerospace industry.
Work experience programmes are available for school children from Year 6 to Year 11. For Year 6, the programmes include team-based design and construct challenges, and first-hand experience of many aspects of DARA's work; two programmes for Year 9 students: under GETSET and BETSET (Girls (or Boys) Entering Tomorrow's Engineering and Science), students are given an introduction to engineering problem solving. For Year 10, the very successful Saturday Engineering Club – sponsored by Cardiff and the Vale Education Business Partnership – offers two intakes per annum; each nine week session can take 20 Year 10 students, who have the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience in aeronautical engineering, and extend their team-building and communication skills.
For Years 10 and 11, DARA offers some 200 students a year a variety of placements, including aeronautical engineering, IT, administration and air traffic control. And with Swansea University, DARA offers a pre-university year in industry, with a bursary of £8,500 and engineering experience.
DARA also has a variety of projects available to teachers, including a one day visit to gain an insight into DARA's management and team operations, covering a variety of aspects such as team-building, motivating staff and target setting. The project 'The Rocket Factory' helps the personal and professional development of teaching staff.
Value for money?
This wide range of activities makes a substantial demand on DARA resources – some 14 professional training staff and additional support staff. Is it worth it? From a narrow DARA perspective, the answer is clearly 'yes': they gain a steady supply of the qualified engineering recruits that are so essential for a competitive future; they also ensure that the wider community in Wales is aware of their capability – attracting not only other recruits to the workforce, but also useful links for securing additional work for the establishment.
From a MOD perspective, the programme may look rather more like an overhead, which needs to be continuously justified. But it clearly makes a significant contribution to DARA's capability and to the MOD's public standing.
On the national scale, it is a relief to find that there are still places where engineering is seen as an essential skill – and one that makes a vital contribution to our national industrial base. Would that there were more like it.