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Engineers receive warning over declining youth apprenticeships

With the increased government focus on manufacturing, the repeated warnings of an engineering skills shortage, and the tripling of university tuition fees at a time of relatively high graduate unemployment, you’d have thought that the number of apprentices would be shooting up.

But the latest EngineeringUK report – the annual assessment of the state of the engineering nation – today highlighted that the number of under-19s taking advanced level engineering apprentices is actually falling, by 8.1 per cent this year and 12.2 per cent last year.

Continuing growth in the number of over-25s taking up training means overall numbers are almost flat compared to last year, (rising just 1.3 per cent) but the bigger picture is one of declining youth apprenticeships.

As a result, EngineeringUK is calling for a concerted effort to double the number of under-19 engineering advanced level apprentices, as well as the number of engineering graduates and pupils studying physics at GCSE level.

It’s puzzling news to say the least, and sufficiently worrying to industry that skills minister Matthew Hancock this morning held a meeting at No 11 Downing Street with representatives of BAE Systems, BT Technology, National Grid, Rolls-Royce and Shell UK to discuss the issue.


Task force: the UK’s top engineering firms met skills minister Matthew Hancock in Downing Street this morning to discuss the looming skills shortage.

But it also raises serious questions about the steps engineering firms are taking to ensure their pipeline of future talent, the quality of engineering education and the current efforts to attract young people into the industry.

It’s been well recognised for years that the difficulties companies face in recruiting staff with the right skills and experience are only going to get worse as the many older engineers who make up a large proportion of the workforce retire. This is only likely to be exacerbated if numbers of new engineers are not increased.

EngineeringUK’s chief executive, Paul Jackson, claimed the growth in over-25 apprentices showed UK engineering businesses were taking action to ensure current employees had sufficient training.

‘However, as these findings show, it is vital we focus on attracting new talent into the industry,’ he said in a statement. ‘As the UK economy’s engine for growth, it is crucial that engineering gains sustained support for education, training and careers inspiration.’

The EngineeringUK 2014 report is a hefty 240-page document and we’ll be digesting it over the coming week to discover what else it reveals about the health of British engineering.

In the meantime, we’d like to hear how the headline figures chime with your experiences. Are companies training up existing employees rather than taking on young blood? How concerned are employers about a future skills shortage? Is there dissatisfaction with the quality of young people attempting to enter the profession? Or are bosses too worried about their bottom line to take on the task of making their businesses sustainable?

Readers' comments (20)

  • In the 24 years I have been involved in engineering from starting as an apprentice, I have always seen it as a larger challenge for engineers to be recognised for the importance of their role in engineering than carrying out their role. There I feel lays the problem within industry in the UK and Ireland. From the design engineer to the machinist on the shop floor they are seen as a necessary evil. If you look at engineering in other parts of the world and for example Germany, engineering roles are looked on with the same importance as a surgeon and engineering is seen to be a great career path and so it should be, without it the world would stand still.
    The attitude towards engineering needs to change for it to become an exciting, prestige’s path for our young people to follow. The world does not revolve around Accounts, Bankers, Solicitors and Politians. Left to them the world probably would stand still.

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  • The attitude to engineering starts in school, before students chose GCSE subjects. Take a peek at the GCSEs in 'Engineering' that are available. They are a joke. It's all about 'vocational training', the world of work, in short, it's for those not expecting to study at university.
    Engineering is a PROFESSION, with rich and exciting British history. It should be taught as such, as a prime subject. Then you might get some engineers coming through.

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  • The problem is much deeper than simply one of professional recoginition. In our case we get requests for interviews with journalists regarding our technology. Would you care to guess, from the list below who gets requested?

    Chairman (financial only)
    Chief Executive (business development)
    Chief Engineer
    Any one of our thirty engineering staff

    No young person with any ambition wants to be consigned permanently to the back room. Get the media luvvies to realise where engineering innovation really comes from.

    Correct, only the first two.

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  • Whilst the steps and discussions being taken should be applauded I do think the Government are a little out of touch with the reality of engineering in the UK. Great that the major players are committing to supporting apprenticeships and that they have a structured approach to them still. But, the majority of UK engineering firms employ less than 80 people. These companies drive innovation across a multitude of industrial sectors and are also the first to suffer when the major players start their recruitment drives. Let's see them represented more directly in these discussions as the opportunities that they can provide both in numbers and ease of access should be attracting the bulk of support. They are also the Companies that require the most support in developing their young engineers whilst managing their overall business goals. At Festo we are working closely with many of our customers to help promote and attract young engineers and are constantly impressed with how passionate our customers are on this topic. Let's get some real support behind the backbone of UK manufacturing - the thousands of SME's that have kept engineering alive here.

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  • All of the above comments are cogent and to the point. What a shame 'Two-Brains Willetts' won't get to hear them, as he still thinks the leaders in engineering are the big companies. Any chance that this might get passed on?

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  • I have been working in New Zealand for the last 19 years so may be a little out of touch, but I am sure the situation is similar.
    To quote one of our engineering graduates ‘” I don’t believe that there is a shortage of engineers, or they would be paid more. There must be a shortage of lawyers and accountants”.

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  • Last week I attended the OPITO Energise Your Future event at Norwich, where I was happy to represent the company I work for. These events are aimed at school students from yr9 up to yr11 to give an idea how maths and science can lead to a rewarding engineering career (in my case Oil & Gas).
    Of the 2000 teenagers who came along, I would say only 10% were interested in engineering, and only 10% of those showed any interest in Oil & Gas engineering. Most were keen only to criticise it as a environmentally harmful business (thanks to the fracking scaremongers!).
    So we're looking at potentially only 1% or less of the student population to fill jobs in the business.
    My company currently has over 20 engineer positions that we just can't fill.

    I would put a lot of the blame on the schools for not pushing the importance of maths and science.
    It would also help if schools were in contact with business to understand their requirements of a future workforce.

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  • The two above comments highlight two of the sides of this debate: on the one hand, working engineers saying they aren't paid enough; on the other, employers saying there aren't enough candidates to fill available posts. Steve (or anyone else involved in recruiting and employing engineers), how would you address the comments that employers should offer higher salaries if they want to fill their posts more easily?

  • While Managers exist who lack any background in design, development or manufacture and aspire only to rise as high as possible and as quickly as possible by ensuring profits are not used for training, what else do we expect?

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  • Apprenticeships are very much needed and can lead to an enjoyable and rewarding career. If we can get more people interested in these schemes then we may see further growth in manufacturing. I like to be careful when promoting apprenticeships, they lead to a very different career than studying for an engineering degree. They are not an alternative to a degree but they do have an important role in industry.

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  • I think Steve Doherty’s comment “Most were keen only to criticise it as an environmentally harmful business” is the most specific and wider cultural point that is not really faced up to by engineers or the government. Engineering by its purpose and nature has a huge impact on what has become known as the ‘Human Foot print’. In the past the impact (via building bridges, tunnels, extracting resources, developing aircraft, cars etc– would have been seen as good and beneficial.

    Over the past 20 years the default setting is that human/engineering impact is seen as bad. There are probably many engineers and business leaders who actually go along with this view and very few who will give a robust defense of the gains that engineering has bought us and that any problems that are caused can be fixed and overcome. We are reaping the cost of having a generation or two of young people being taught at school that climate change and the environment have only suffered/got worse without any real opposition (by the Engineering institutions) to challenge some of the worst claims.

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