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“I was born in Birmingham... but made in Barrow!” – National Apprenticeship Week: Steve’s Story

It was the 1980s when Steve Cole started his apprenticeship in the motor industry in the Midlands. The whole industry was on the cusp of a major period of modernisation – with Europe’s manufacturers keeping up with global competition – and the school-leaver was at the right place at the right time.

It was the World Cup summer of ‘86 when he was weighing up his options. He’d wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dad and grandad who worked in manufacturing, and so he’d joined Austin Rover as a Craft Electrical Apprentice.

“In so many ways, the apprenticeship was the making of me,” says Steve – who now lives in Cumbria with his family. “It gave me years of experience over some of my peers and was the foundation of a really rewarding career. I’d never really sat comfortably with academia so I couldn’t wait to get in the workplace, the apprenticeship gave me the opportunity to understand every part of the organisation at the grassroots level.”

After completing his four-year programme, he rose through the ranks. His newly-acquired skills meant he was in a solid position to support the business as manufacturing automated and modernised, eventually playing a senior role in operations across Europe.

“I knew the business inside out, at every level. Knowledge and lessons I’d learnt during my apprenticeship really helped when making important decisions about how the business ran, and how we could improve it. They’re lessons that, years later, I still draw on today.

“I always say to young people, open your eyes to the full possibilities. An apprenticeship gives you such a good foundation for a career for life – and gives people a distinct advantage if they approach it with a thirst for knowledge.”

It was a foundation that Steve would build his career on, with an eventual move to BAE Systems in Barrow in 2008 - where he’s now Chief Infrastructure Officer. As Deputy Chair of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, he also plays a role in promoting the county’s economic growth.

He said: “We’ve seen Barrow and the surrounding areas really change and develop over the years for the better. The South Lakes is a fantastic place to live, work and spend time and it’s been brilliant bringing up a family here.

“I always say I was born in Birmingham but made in Barrow, Cumbria really feels like home now and if we had to make the decision to re-locate again it would, without a shadow of a doubt, be the same answer.”

The story has come full circle for Steve too. In his role at BAE Systems, he’s been part of the team that has overseen the significant growth of the workforce – of which apprenticeships have played a key part.

It’s contributed to an apprenticeship renaissance over the last two decades. Cumbria now sees one in eight young people take up an apprenticeship after GCSEs (treble the national figure). In the last full academic year (2021/22) Barrow saw 800 people start an apprenticeship, the highest figure of Cumbria’s districts. BAE Systems were a major contributor to that number locally.

Steve says he’s proud of the role BAE Systems has played in creating opportunities; “The apprenticeship programme has been really successful. We’re not only developing and nurturing our own talent, we see great retention as people care about their work and are passionate about the company. It’s both developing and then keeping skilled, talented people in Cumbria – and that’s what it’s all about.”

At the age of 52 and reflecting on his own experiences, Steve is pleased he’s now able to play a role in the next generation of apprentices. He said: “I’m a major advocate for apprenticeships, not only are you earning whilst learning, but the chances are you’ll have a distinct advantage over others just entering the workplace. It’s not only the technical knowledge, but all the soft skills that come from in-depth of how a workplace functions.

“When I look back on my experience, as a 16-year-old leaving school, I’m always eternally grateful for that apprenticeship and what it did for me.”

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