By Andy Hirst, Special Correspondent
If there was ever a walking talking advert for apprenticeships, it’s teenager James Wilkes.
The 19-year-old left King James’ School in Almondbury, went straight to one of Huddersfield’s landmark businesses, Syngenta, as an apprentice and has never looked back.
For he’s not only an engineering apprentice at the sprawling Leeds Road plant which makes crop protection products for farmers worldwide, but he’s also vice chairman of a group called The Young Apprentice Ambassador Network (YAAN), telling other youngsters and their parents that apprenticeships can be the ultimate first step onto a career for life.
Syngenta has won several awards for its apprenticeship schemes and at the 2020/21 Rate My Apprenticeship Awards was ranked fifth nationwide in the top 100 companies.
The company is taking on 15 apprentices this August and 10 of the places have already been snapped up but there is still that opportunity for five others with the closing date for applications looming on Friday, July 2.
James is in no doubt he made the right move – and so too is 21-year-old Adam Rodwell from Mirfield who can’t stop smiling as he talks about what he does at Syngenta … a far cry from the shy 18-year-old who began there three years ago.
Mechanical engineering apprentice James said: “Every day is a new challenge and it’s often about problem solving which really pushes our skills and our minds. We may get a flow problem in one of the chemical processes and although we can sort out a short-term fix to keep it safe, we then need to figure out what’s causing it – to get to the root cause of the problem. Is it something to do with the product in the pipe or is there an issue with the pipework material itself?
“It’s not just the practical stuff too. I’ve recently had to write an 8,000-word assignment on computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing which involved devising a flywheel. I now hope to go on to do a degree alongside my work.”
James and Adam – along with all the other apprentices – get to see first-hand the seven main production plants at Syngenta in Huddersfield during their three or four-year apprenticeship and, at the end of it, will be assigned to one of them. All of those production plants make products which help farmers protect crops from weeds, pests and disease.
It’s this overview which means they get to meet all 400 staff on the site, working alongside experienced colleagues, following procedures and picking up all the best practices which they channel into their own work.
James said: “A lot of the people who work here started as apprentices and we have to work hard and show interest and willingness to earn their respect.”
Adam studied science-based A-Level subjects at Mirfield Free Grammar and was thinking about going to university until Syngenta staff did a talk at the school and he went to a taster day at Syngenta in Huddersfield.
A tour of the works where the processing plants were explained sold him on the idea of an apprenticeship. He applied and was accepted. The apprentices spend one or two days a week at college throughout their apprenticeship while building up their work experience at the plant with a day set aside each week for study.
“I’m just so glad I did this instead of university,” said Adam. “Every day is different. We are seeing and dealing with things in the workplace in real life after learning about them theoretically in college.”
The apprentices at Syngenta are managed by Training and Apprenticeship Managers Ian Nunn and Nikita Seabright.
Ian said: “When Adam first joined us he was really shy and quiet. He’s now at the end of his apprenticeship and has completed his end point assessment. During this assessment he was observed controlling the complex process plant, carrying out laboratory analysis and leading morning team meetings.
“Our young people bring energy, new ideas and a bright dynamic to our site. It’s more than just teaching them work skills, they are an incredible asset to our company. We currently have 18 apprentices and there is no way we could find that many people with their skills in the work marketplace.”
Nikita added: “Finding skilled people in our sector is challenging and it is partly why we have decided to develop our own skilled people through apprenticeships. It’s a great match because we have really experienced people coaching the next generation who bring new ways of thinking to our work. We are continually recognised as champions and ambassadors for apprenticeship development in the region.”
Ian revealed that a few years ago awareness of apprenticeships in the region was low among young people, parents, schools and careers advisors. Some people had very old-fashioned views about them so Syngenta actively engaged with individuals, schools and organisations, including hosting a group of 50 careers advisors down at the Leeds Road site.
After a day seeing just how structured and comprehensive the apprenticeships are, every career advisor left enthused.
“It really opened their eyes,” said Ian. “Our apprentices are the people who will be operating Syngenta plants in the future.”
There are three main elements to apprenticeships at Syngenta – technical qualifications such as a degree, City and Guilds or a BTEC; a competency qualification such as an NVQ and the apprentices have to rack up a lot of on-the-job experience to tick them all off; thirdly, a work-based programme which is reviewed by managers every six to eight weeks and the apprentices have tough targets to meet.
Ian and Nikita are members of the Yorkshire and Humber Apprenticeship Ambassador Network (YHAAN) which promotes everything positive about apprenticeships across the region – including talks in schools, colleges and universities – and its national group advises the government.
Ian Nunn and Nikita Seabright
Since 2008 Syngenta in Huddersfield has had 60 apprentices through its doors and in all that time just two dropped out after deciding it wasn’t for them.
The apprenticeships available now are science manufacturing; science industry maintenance technician (electrical); a health, safety and environment technician which are all Level 3 Advanced programmes; a degree control systems engineer and this apprenticeship puts the successful applicant through a degree at Sheffield Hallam University.
The other apprenticeship is a bit different – it’s a Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship role for a cyber security technologist learning how to protect Syngenta’s computer systems against any threats and with all the manufacturing processes fully computerised, it certainly is a vital role.
To find out more about apprenticeships at Syngenta and to apply, go to www.syngenta.co.uk/careers
* Written by former Huddersfield Examiner Head of Content ANDY HIRST who now runs his own Huddersfield-based agency AH! PR (https://ah-pr.com/) specialising in press releases, blogging and copywriting for business in Yorkshire and across the UK.