Teenage apprentice melting away male bastion

Teesside stainless steel specialist Paralloy and teenager Sophie Robins are melting away one of the remaining male bastions of industry.

Seventeen-year-old Sophie from Brotton has been recruited as an apprentice tube welder at the company’s site in Billingham.

Although just under half of all UK workers are female only 12% work in engineering and, on average, around 20 men and just one woman apply for each welding vacancy.

Even though she is new to the job Sophie is under no illusion what’s in store because her dad Brian has been a welder for 20 years.

“My whole family were happy that I picked welding, particularly as not many women do it. When I went to college I had a choice between engineering and welding and I chose that because I prefer being hands on,” she said. “My dad, especially, was cheering me on and said he’ll always be there if I ever struggle with my course work.”

Sophie will split her time between working towards her qualifications at Hartlepool College of Further Education – where Brian also trained – and welding tubes at Paralloy. “It’s a good place to work,” she said. “Everybody’s been so welcoming.  I’ve not been treated any differently because I am a girl.”

Sophie is one of 12 apprentices amongst a workforce that has more than doubled since new owners acquired Paralloy just over four years ago.  More than 500 people work across its sites in Billingham and at TeesAMP in Middlesbrough where it now operates from four large units.

More than 90% of Paralloy’s products are exported. Its order book is full and it has just started work on a major contract for one of the world’s biggest petrochemical sites, producing nearly 400 radiant coils which will be installed inside the furnaces of the new $6 billion Ras Laffan Petrochemicals Project in Qatar.

Paralloy has plans for further growth and has adopted a recruitment strategy which it believes is different to traditional practices in UK industry.

“It’s not only apprentices like Sophie who’re at the start of their careers, we’re also looking to provide opportunities for people with a range of experiences and backgrounds.  That includes exploring routes for mature apprenticeships within our current workforce,” said Paralloy’s HR Manager Ian Grimes.

“In collaboration with local colleges and training academies, we recognised the challenge of a growing skills gap in the industry and discussed the opportunity of bringing back lost vocations and skills that once served as the backbone of the castings industry.”

Paralloy is planning to create its own skills academy on site and is working with Next Gen Makers which supports UK manufacturing and engineering firms to run successful training programmes.

“Our intention is to implement a best in class apprenticeship scheme and devise a kitemark for an improved industry standard for the development of existing and future employees of Paralloy,” said Mr Grimes.

The company’s transformation since 2020 has seen its success marked with a number of UK industry awards, including recognition of its Business Growth and Strategy at the prestigious Make UK Manufacturing Awards earlier this year.