I have just completed writing a chapter for a new Heat Treatment of Iron and Steel Encyclopedia on the subject of nitriding. During the writing of that chapter and subsequent research, I started to think about the content of the technical papers I had received and who could read them.

The content of the papers (albeit on the subject of nitriding) contained an absolute wealth of academic information. But who, on the shop floor, can apply this information to general process work? This is a common problem for all heat-treatment processing methods and understanding the thermal activities that are taking place when the steel is heated.

The lesson I learned many years ago was that the heat treater – the person on the shop floor – can literally make or break the product that is being treated. I have long believed in the education of those who do the work of heat treating and have made a conscious effort to break down a scientific subject into a more understandable language.

While there is a great need for academic research and understanding of the metallurgical events that happen during the thermal treatment of any metal, there is an even greater need for that understanding to be given to the person on the shop floor. Here in the United Kingdom, general election is approaching, and one of the platforms that each of the political parties seems to be riding on is the need for the introduction of apprenticeship schemes to enable the youth of today to become the technicians and experts of tomorrow.

In 1955 when I started work at a well-known aircraft company as an indentured apprentice, we were expected to serve five full years of learning. That company took a very bold step and recognized that there were no apprentices being trained in the science of metallurgy or thermal-processing techniques. My friend and I were the first to apprentice to enter the field of heat treatment. This industry is where I have remained since then. Like my mentors, I have been an advocate of apprenticeships for heat treatment and metallurgical processing over the years.

Not everyone has the opportunity or the ability to attend college or university to obtain a degree in metallurgy. It is my belief that some of the technical schools/technical colleges or even industrial organizations should seriously consider the need for apprentices within the heat-treatment industry.

Lecturers/instructors should have good, sound industrial thermal-processing knowledge and the ability to translate a highly scientific subject into a language of general understanding. When I first started my own company, a well-known retired professor once told me, “If your students are not getting it, then it is not their fault but yours!” That comment has stuck with me throughout the years.

I carried this torch with me during my tenure in South Africa, and one company finally listened to me – the local aircraft company. As a result, they started seven apprentices in the heat-treatment department for heat treating and surface treating. Each apprentice had to engage in a minimum of 2,000 hours of classroom training and a minimum of 2,000 hours of practical training on the shop floor.

It does require the commitment of industrialists to persevere with apprenticeship training, particularly in the field of thermal processing. Industry takes a risk that the apprentice will not complete the course or will be poached away by competition. This means the company has trained someone for another company at their expense. That is a risk that any industrial company will have to take, however, no matter what the industry. From a personal point of view, I believe I got it right the first time.

It will now be up to the new and incoming U.K. government as to how serious and committed they will be to the promotion of apprenticeship programs and not to use it just as a vote-catching promise. It is my fervent hope that the incoming government will support a program of metallurgical process apprenticeships and training.

Who knows, maybe the incoming government will take thermal-processing apprenticeships and utilize it within the European community. Maybe they can even start a worldwide trend.


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