LEADING Scottish industrialist Jim McColl has highlighted the vital role apprenticeships can play as the country continues to struggle for the skills it needs to drive the economy forward.

Mr McColl said his time as an apprentice at Weir Pumps has been crucial to his career development, stating that he continues to benefit from the experience in his role at the head of Clyde Blowers Capital. The investment vehicle specialises in acquiring engineering businesses which it believes offer significant growth potential.

Speaking as he was unveiled as one of the first inductees of Skills Development Scotland’s new “Apprentice Greats” initiative, which celebrates individuals who have used their apprenticeships as a platform for successful careers and make a significant contribution to apprenticeships in Scotland, Mr McColl said: “Because of my apprenticeship and the time I spent on the shop floor, I am able to walk round and I have got a good feel for that is happening in the business that you might not have if you haven’t done that.

“Also, I progressed from working in engineering management as I went up the hierarchy after my apprenticeship to being a senior consultant with Coopers & Lybrand. I was put into industrial businesses to see if we could come up with a plan to improve them; they were usually in trouble.

“Now, my natural instinct is to walk around the shop floor and talk to the people there. This is where I got most of the answers to what was wrong. I was very comfortable doing that because that was my background; I had served an apprenticeship and it was just second nature to me. It has been hugely advantageous in the way my career has developed.”

Mr McColl, who sits on the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, emphasised the importance of apprenticeships to the companies Clyde Blowers invests in. These include the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow ,where 40 apprentices have helped to bring down the average employee age of 55. Nearly one-quarter of Ferguson’s apprentices are female, with the firm taking steps to encourage more young women to consider careers in engineering.

But Mr McColl fears Scotland is not currently producing enough skilled people for technical and engineering roles, suggesting that they have become unfashionable as the education system has evolved.

He said: “There is more focus on sending people to university. We are lacking the skills, the technician type of person. There are some really good quality jobs but there is a lack of people to fill them.

“And perhaps they are being filled by people coming out of university who have not necessarily had the training and gone through the evolution as a person [that occurs] when you go through an apprenticeship.”

Asked what government could do from an educational standpoint to help ensure Scottish industry is equipped with more of the talent it needs, Mr McColl replied: “Personally I think it would be better to put a greater focus on developing apprenticeships and technician-type skills. It is a very good grounding to move on into higher management, executive positions.

“And you are probably a better all-rounder because of the experience you have had. I would just encourage more and more focus on technical skills, and skills development through apprenticeships.”

Mr McColl, who went on to gain a degree in technology and business studies after serving his apprenticeship at Weir, and then a masters in international accounting and finance, added: “The first day I started in Weir, the head of the apprentice training department, speaking to us all, said: “The sky is the limit in here. You can go as far you want to go. We will support you, but you have to work hard and do your bit as well.” It was hugely motivating to see you could start off doing basic skills, and end up owning the company.”

Asked whether Brexit will make the skills challenge more acute, given that it may end the free movement of people from the EU to the UK, Mr McColl noted: “Brexit or no Brexit, there is a compelling need for much more focus on apprenticeships and developing skills. It is difficult to get homegrown talent, but it is still tough with the open position we have just now before we leave [the EU]. With or without it (Brexit), it is absolutely essential to encourage more people to see this as a viable and good path to a career.”

Charlie Murphy of BAE Systems, Kenny Stewart of FES Group and Jim Swan of GTG Training are among Mr McColl’s fellow inductees to the Apprentice Greats programme.