The nice thing about James Dyson is that he’s looking to the future. There’s obviously a shortage of well-trained engineers in the UK, since for a while now engineering companies have found it difficult to make a profit and so have cut their apprenticeships programs. It’s cheaper to outsource the manufacturing to China, after all, and for bright young people it generally earns more to go into advertising, banking or financial services or indeed anything other than engineering. Yes, there are some exceptions, with some car manufacturers still having (and even increasing) their apprenticeships, but for companies like Rolls-Royce there are many times more applicants than places.
Engineering companies are competing with China, and given the regulatory and tax burden in the West that’s pretty hard to do. A friend of mine used to run a small engineering company and was always on the edge of running out of money since the profits were so tight. He ended up selling the machinery and re-training as a plumber over a dozen years ago now (I bought some of his kit), since when he’s had a very much improved income for fewer hours. If you’ve looked at what Dyson sells, you’ll notice that they cost a lot more than the standard stuff, but also work very well and are pretty reliable relative to the other stuff as well. He’s betting that people will pay more for something that does a better job, and so far that bet seems to be paying off. He actually does destructive life-testing to find out what breaks first, then fixes the design so that it doesn’t break. After enough iterations, you end up with something that just works and keeps on working, until you’ve forgotten what you paid for it in the first place.
Although Dyson obviously hopes to profit from this venture himself by creaming off the best design talent who will also fit in with what he needs for his company, there will be a wider benefit to the community and the country from a bigger pool of engineers. They also won’t end up with the millstone of a student debt to work off, and I’d also expect that the college itself may end up making a profit from the real-life work that the students put in. This sort of win-win situation would be useful across the whole of Europe and the States as well, since we can’t compete on the cost of labour but only on the quality of the work produced.
Of course it’s not all rosy – apprentices get paid around half the minimum wage and so they’ll need some help getting by. See the Financial Times article. Also, it seems you can be an apprentice shelf-stacker or otherwise end up with a useless qualification that is not worth the paper it’s written on. Still, the Dyson initiative should lead to a well-recognised qualification that will be sought-after.