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Apprentices who keep the poultry in motion

By Mark Andrews | Telford | Business | Published:

They come in as whole birds, and depart as wings, goujons and breasts.

Every week 1.5 million chickens pass through the giant Avara Foods plant in Telford ­– that's two birds every second. The meat is processed, sealed and packed by millions of pounds' worth of hi-tech robotics as they are transported around the plant on a network of precision-timed conveyor belts, preparing them for delivery to some of the UK's biggest retailers.

And it is the role of Karol Nazar and George Robson to help keep all this poultry in motion.

Karol, 20, and George 16, are engineering apprentices at the works in Hortonwood. While some of their peers opted for the well-worn route of A-levels followed by university, the pair chose a different path. They are among a growing number of young people who are eschewing full-time education in favour of on-the-job training, backed up by part-time college tuition.

Pete McMillan, site engineering manager at Avara's Telford plant, says 18 of his 65-strong engineering team are being trained through some sort of engineering apprenticeship scheme. But while most people associate apprenticeships with teenage school leavers, Mr McMillan says many of these are also management trainees who have worked their way up through the ranks, with degree courses available for those who wish to take that career route.

George and Karol receive their training from Telford College, which has seen a significant increase in the number of students following this course of study.

This week is National Apprenticeship Week, a government-backed campaign, now in its 13th year, which seeks to raise the profile of vocational training.

Beckie Bosworth, employer engagement manager at the college, says the number of students following apprenticeship courses has increased sharply following the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017. The levy, first announced by George Osborne in his 2015 Budget, requires larger employers to pay a tax equivalent to 0.5 per cent of its wage bill, which is used to fund such schemes.

"Before the levy we had 650 students on apprenticeship courses, but since the levy it has risen to well over 1,000," she says.

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For George and Karol, the opportunity to work with machinery always held more fascination than academic study.

George, who started his course after leaving Madeley Academy last year, says he was surprised by the level of technology employed at the plant.

"I thought it would be more dirty, but it's really clean," he says. "Everything is automated."

For Karol, a former pupil at Hadley Learning Community in Telford, it is actually his second apprenticeship.

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"I have always been interested in engineering," he says.

"I did an apprenticeship in car mechanics, but I decided I wanted to do more than cars, I was very interested in the robotics side of things."

Karol and George spend much of their time in the engineering bay, where the equipment is brought in to them for maintenance and repair. On the bench in front of them is a set of precision scales, which has just been brought in for repair.

"It ensures each product is the correct weight before it gets passed," says Karol, who lives in Hadley.

"If it isn't correct, it will be removed from the production line, and it will be repackaged."

At about £400, the scales are one of the cheaper items that comes into the workshop, but some of the more advanced equipment is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Also in the workshop are a team working on section of the conveyor belt which is in for repair. The company recently invested £2.3 million in new technology at the plant, and claims it is one of the most advanced of its kind in the UK.

Karol says: "There are pusher arms, for rejected products, which remove them from the production line, there are the packers which drop the product into the appropriate-sized bag, and the the sealers that come down to ensure it is properly sealed, with just the right amount of gas inside."

Mr McMillan says the apprentices become part of the full-time staff – or 'colleagues' as the company prefers to call them – the moment they sign up, meaning that they have the same job security as all the other employees.

"It means they don't have to worry about whether they will be given a job when they have finished their apprenticeships," he says.

Wayne Timmins, 40, was recently promoted to shift manager after four-and-a-half years with the company. He is an example of one of the 'mature apprentices', who is now attending Telford College every Tuesday for his Higher National Certificate.

Mrs Bosworth says as well as the engineering apprentices, the college is also providing training for members of Avara's human resources team.

"It's not just young people doing the apprenticeship courses," she says.

"It's all areas of employment, and all ages, both new and existing employees."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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