Real Business Story: Sterling Pharma Solutions Ltd

Ahead of Apprenticeship Week 2018, we spoke to Chris Wiper, Learning and Development Manager, and Tyler McKeown, Apprentice Laboratory Scientist, at Sterling Pharma Solutions about the value of degree-level apprentices for both the employer and the employee. 

Chris Wiper, Learning and Development Manager, at Sterling Pharma Solutions.

Sum up your business story so far in the time it takes to make a brew/order a pint/boil a kettle.

Here at Sterling we’re a leading supplier of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), intermediates, chemistry and analytical services to the pharmaceutical industry. We’re based in Dudley, on a 42 acre site here in Northumberland. We are approaching our 50th year of production here at this site and we now employ over 370 members of staff and are leaders in our field.

What value do degree-level apprentices bring to your business?

Higher apprenticeships allow us to ‘grow our own’ when it comes to staff. It’s a sustainable and cost effective way for us to succession plan as we can grow a committed and engaged workforce who are able to develop the on-the-job skills, knowledge and behaviour that are needed in our business. Our apprentices pair academic learning with real world scenarios so they really understand how what they’re learning applies to work.

Is there a reason why you’d choose an apprentice over a graduate?

We’ll always hire the best person for the job, but those who have studied and learnt in practical scenarios may have an advantage over a new graduate who hasn’t had that on-the-job experience.

How is the training funded?

As a company, we pay an Apprenticeship Levy, so a percentage of our wage bill goes into a Government account to help pay for apprenticeship training.

How do you go about recruiting apprentices and is it difficult?

In the last two or three years, I’ve seen a massive improvement in the process of recruiting apprentices. When we started taking large numbers of apprentices, we did find it difficult at first. But now we use a combination of the Government’s Recruit an Apprentice site, plus we work closely with leading colleges and training providers – many of these offer a service to employers to help recruit apprentices and many have years of experience in recruiting to our sector.

Would you recommend the apprenticeship scheme to others?

Yes, 100%. We get involved in outreach programmes with local schools and, along with lots of other organisations, we’re starting to change the perception of apprenticeships amongst young people and their parents. People used to think of apprenticeships as entry level but there are higher level options now and the ‘earn as you learn’ model is appealing to a lot of young people.

In three words why would you recommend degree apprentices to other businesses?

Sustainability; growth; and motivation.  Motivation is key – it’s not just the motivation of the young people who undertake apprenticeships but also of our current staff. Apprentices have a positive effect on everyone, they bring an enthusiasm with them which has an effect on our existing staff as well including myself.


Tyler McKeown, Apprentice Laboratory Scientist, at Sterling Pharma Solutions.

What excited you about the degree apprenticeship scheme?

I’ve always had an interest in science but I hadn’t dreamt I could do a degree in Analytical Chemistry. For me personally, getting the opportunity to do a degree course while also learning via the apprenticeship scheme was definitely the best option.

What’s the best bit about splitting time between work and study?

Most definitely the challenge. I’d be lying if I said it was easy to complete an apprenticeship – splitting the time between work and study and still fitting in a social life has challenged me – but I’m learning new things about myself. It helps me to develop skills like time management and helps me to develop as a person.

How does it feel to be part of the world of work?

Being a part of the world of work and being part of such a professional company at such a young age is brilliant. I have a head start in expanding my knowledge compared with a graduate – I started here when I was 17, completing my level 3 apprenticeship and I’m now at level 5, with plans to move on to level 6. I have direct contact with colleagues who have 20 or 30 years of experience and, while I have a personal mentor, the whole team helps me to succeed. I couldn’t ask for better colleagues.

Is there a reason why you chose to follow the apprenticeship route over other routes available to you?

Personally – and I think this applies to a lot of young people – I always wanted to earn, to pay for things myself and to grow as a person.

Would you recommend others become an apprentice too?

I’d always recommend apprenticeships. I massively appreciate the scheme here at Sterling and I am, and always will be, a huge supporter of apprenticeships. I visit local schools with Sterling to talk to the students about apprenticeships and it’s a proud moment for me when my family see how it’s working out for me. My parents are already encouraging my siblings to take a similar route.

Visit our Apprenticeship toolkit for everything you need to know.