THE North-East chemical process industry has missed out on millions of apprenticeships during the last 30 years due to Government cuts and company complacency, a business leader has claimed.

Dr Stan Higgins, chief executive of North-East Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), says the region is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers with some firms neglecting apprenticeship schemes.

Dr Higgins, whose NEPIC organisation represents 500 companies in the petrochemical, chemical, biotechnology and pharmaceutical business, employing 35,000 people, claims the industry is playing “catch up” and has lost about four million apprentices due to Government policy changes.

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He said he understood smaller firms are finding it increasingly financially harder to take on apprentices, but argued the industry would benefit markedly even if companies took on just one youngster.

He said: “The North-East used to have fantastic apprentice schools with the mines, the shipyards and ICI, but they have gone and graduates are taking degrees that are not so technically orientated.

“It will face some difficult challenges in the near future, it's average age is currently 55 and people will be looking to retire which is a big concern.

“There could be up to 8,000 people who could retire and we need lots of people to come through.”

Dr Higgins said the industry had not have fully grasped the importance of apprenticeships, a situation made more difficult by a wider misplaced public belief that big chemical process companies had left the North-East.

He said: “The perception that the industry has gone in the North-East because ICI disappeared has not helped.

“The loss of ICI had a huge impact but the factories have been taken on and we now have companies like Sembcorp, Sabic, Ensus and GrowHowUK.

“Some small and medium-sized businesses do not have a good record in taking apprenticeships, and you can understand because it is not cheap over four years.

“But we have a lot of young people in senior positions, it might not appear as glamorous as some industries, but the average wage is very good and the job can take you around the world.

“If every business took on one apprentice every couple of years, we wouldn't have a problem.”

A skills conference organised by NEPIC takes place on Wednesday, February 13, from 9.15am at Ramside Hall, Durham, aimed at encouraging businesses to take on more apprentices.