Why are apprenticeships still not the obvious route?

Innovation and fresh thinking among employers, combined with a greater value being placed on apprenticeships, can help solve the skills crisis in engineering. David Lakin – head of education at the IET – explains.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of levy-paying firms have no understanding of the Apprenticeship Levy or don’t know how their company will respond to it.
The majority of employers are concerned about the inadequate supply of suitable young people to fill training and employment opportunities.

The skills deficit in the UK’s engineering sectors is as topical and concerning as ever.

A recent employer survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) on skills and demand in industry shows that while employment in engineering is buoyant, the skills challenge remains a leading concern for businesses, with almost half reporting difficulties in the skills supply when recruiting new staff.

The biggest worry for the majority of these employers is the inadequate supply of suitable young people to fill training and employment opportunities.

This applies to qualifications, skills and work experience as much as it does to “personal skills” like attitude and motivation, which are seen as equally deficient.

This points to an urgent need for the gap between education and work to be bridged more effectively, so male-dominated sectors like engineering can attract a better quality and more diverse workforce at entry level.

A degree isn’t always the answer

Increasing opportunities for more people to follow a work-based route into engineering by offering meaningful work experience programmes and apprenticeship schemes could significantly reduce the shortfall of new talent employers are calling out for.

Encouragingly, this year’s IET Skills Survey shows that 43% of employers have brought on at least one engineering or technical apprentice in the past year, indicating that the benefits are understood by businesses and the appetite to provide training and good career prospects exists.

This is supported by many campaigns to inspire the next generation of engineers and enthuse young people about the exciting and rewarding career opportunities that studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) present.

Most importantly however, education and industry need to work together to find a solution.

CROP-welding-apprentice pre-apprenticeships
The gap between education and work needs to be bridged more effectively, so male-dominated sectors can attract a better quality and more diverse workforce at entry level.

A close collaboration on designing the content of vocational courses or sponsoring tailored academies will help employers build the specific skills, experience and knowledge they’re looking for and address the lack of ‘work readiness’ among school leavers.

This should also help to address the fundamental cultural shift that needs to happen in this country to remove the stigma associated with young people choosing a vocational route into a career.

Good careers advice is key

Squires Gear and Engineering Ltd, a Coventry-based automotive parts manufacturer, is involved in a local Engineering Academy where they teach real-life situations.

The pupils get their regular GCSE qualifications, but – with the company’s support – they are taught in a way that reflects the real world of work and come out with added skills such as problem-solving.

“The emphasis on university education is part of the problem”, says Tim Squires, commercial director. “Young people are mis-sold the idea by schools, parents and universities that a degree will get them a job in the end, but that’s not the reality of the situation.

“What’s more, it’s landing young people in a huge amount of debt. You don’t actually need a university degree for many of the roles where the skills gaps are most pressing.

“It’s vital that schools support and communicate the option of following a more vocational route into industry. The variety of roles in engineering is huge but without access to work experience and information at the right stage, those opportunities are not being exploited.”

Support from industry

The IET is passionate about providing good careers advice and guidance in schools. Apprenticeships are highlighted as a viable alternative to higher education in its career packs offered to teachers, students and parents, and promoted in schools through STEM ambassadors and STEM programmes in ways young people and parents can relate to.

David Lakin, head of education, the IET.
David Lakin, head of education, the IET.

The IET is further committed to encouraging more young people into apprenticeships by celebrating their talent and achievements in our annual awards programme, as well as running an engineering bursary scheme, sponsored by engineering employers, designed to support talented individuals facing personal obstacles or financial hardship to complete their training with a package of financial support.

The more that industry bodies, employers and schools are able to point out the positive impact that apprenticeships can have on individuals who want an interesting and challenging career, the easier it will be to attract future apprentices and to show this route into industry is just as valid as any other.

Most importantly, in this time of lean government, the skills crisis cannot be solved by one party alone. For the health of the sector, industry and education both have a role to play.