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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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  • When I was growing up I was surrounded by engineering that could be seen "in action". Everything from people servicing cars on the street to the coal mine headstocks and lorries transporting mining associated equipment. I cannot believe it was much different for those living close to shipyards or even farms.

    In today’s UK we have very little of these stimuli for our young people to apply their enquiring minds to. Pretty much everything “engineered” is either very robust, disposable or shielded in such a way as to disguise the workings.

    These “engineering sterile” situations do not currently exist in places like India, China and some African nations as the number and dare I say it quality of their engineers show.

    Engineering was an integral part of the lives of my parents and theirs, I cannot say the same for my children and whilst we do all we can to have them explore their environment in a real and mechanical way a recent trip to a famous “science based” museum showed how hard this would be in the future. Over 50% of the exhibits did not work, the place was tired and drab the only real money spent was in the decor in the canteen or the huge outdoor play area. Exercise of the body is great but exercise of the mind is seriously lacking.

    How many other engineers have found themselves thinking “there’s no future in engineering, but we had a great past!” and would not think to help develop the next engineering cadre?

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  • Today the PISA results were released that compare 15 year olds around the world with regards to education. There is a fundamental issue that the UK is so poor at this level with regards to science and maths.

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  • The UK maintained its previous place in the middle table, above the US, nearly level with France and only slightly below Germany: not good enough for sure, but poor?

  • I have recently tried to employ an apprentice in maintenance engineering within the food sector. we used the usual channels through the local college who placed an advert on the national apprenticeship web site.
    We only managed to attract 1 person to the interview. This was hugely dissapointing.
    We are a large company, not only in the local area but also nationwide in our field.
    With the efforts and time involved in recuiting and ongoing training of apprentices I will find it difficult to get my Ops team to agree a 2nd position.
    On a side note I must agree with an earlier comment of UK industries thought on the engineering role as an neccesary evil.

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  • This is very interesting. Government data shows there were 211,294 applications for 15,000 engineering and manufacturing apprenticeship vacancies made through the National Apprenticeship website last year - 14 applicants for each place.

    The NAS website supposedly accounts for 80% of all available apprenticeships.

    Did you use the NAS website to advertise, Glenn?


  • Simple solution: offer apprenticeships of 6-7 years the graduate boys and girls as professional men and women with degrees and No student loans! Oh stupid me that's the way we used to do it in the old days.....

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  • Sadly I think the trend to turn away from Apprenticeships is a result of a number of things, gone are the days when having "Fully Apprenticed" on a CV meant something.
    Engineering lost it's 'wow' factor with the rise of highly paid jobs in the city - where big money could be made - everybody wanted this, not to get their hands dirty in Engineering. Unfortunately it's mostly these people who've left the country in the state it's in now. Being a university graduate was the thing to be...
    Couple this with the short term view most companies have now regarding staff retention and training and the thought of committing themselves to spending four years training someone when they can employ a graduate who has a degree, it's not hard to see why apprenticeships are declining.
    The company I work for is a classic example of this; The Apprenticeship scheme that was run in the mid-80s when I did mine was considered to be one of the best, with the result that most if not all of the Apprentices stayed with the company.
    As money got tight the company switched from taking on Apprentices to taking on graduates. Unfortunately in order to attract the best graduates they ended up, basically, promising them the earth - "you'll be a team leader in 6 months..." and not delivering, with the result that it's highly unlikely that any of them stay for more than about 5 years max. So every few years the ex-Apprentices who've stayed end up retraining the graduates who are starting (only for them to leave again).
    This is all well and good, except that the knowledge that long term employees have built up is slowly but surely being lost. A lot of the graduates never gain this knowledge simply because they don't (either won’t or can't) do the jobs that the Apprentices were trained to do, or have the long term knowledge or in-depth training.
    Sadly a lot of the management have been indoctrinated into thinking that Apprenticeships are really for those people who don't want to go to university and as such the Apprentice’s are seen as the lowest of the low when it comes to status. The Apprentices we do have, instead of being included into project teams where they could contributing to the overall role of the team and gaining a lot of the knowledge that's being lost, are stuck in the workshop doing the machining.
    Apprentices should be treated like a ball of putty – they’re there to be moulded into a specialist Engineer over a period of time, with a good solid practical grounding of engineering knowledge behind them. This is a lot different than taking on an albeit very clever graduate, who has a 4 year theory based grounding, with little or no experience and expecting them to perform the same. In fact they’re actually thought of more highly than the Apprentice trained Engineer.

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  • Re: Glenn's apprentice...
    I note that he states that his company managed to attract one applicant to interview, but makes no mention of how many applications were received, nor of how many applicants were invited to interview. Whilst it might sound like I'm splitting hairs here, these are clearly all slightly different things which may have wildly different numbers associated with them!

    Perhaps there were a number of applicants that were deemed unsuitable by the emplyer and didn't make it through the first cut. Perhaps the employer invited a few for interview and some of them either declined for whatever reason or just didn't show up.

    It's not an uncommon story:
    - employer receives lots of applications
    - employer whittles down to a short list
    - some of the shortlisted applicants decide not to take things any further

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  • In answer to the Editor's comments | 2 Dec 2013 7:12 pm, I can only speak for the industry in which I work - Oil & Gas.
    There is certainly no shortage of jobs which pay very well indeed.
    Experienced engineers can easily earn £60k up to £160k (or even more if you are willing to travel).
    Perhaps the graduate salaries at around £25k don't look very appealing and maybe the thought of a 4 year graduate program may be daunting, but young people need to look at the bigger picture.

    We sometimes need to remind them that they are only young trainees for a few short years, but there are many more years ahead as an experienced professional.

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  • Oil&gas is certainly an interesting one and perhaps shows where other areas of engineering could go in the future with regards to salary.

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  • Oil and gas is in a league of its own as far as engineering goes. I am currently a graduate engineer and am on a basic salary of £18000 per annum. And during my job search most graduate positions were offering between £17-21k. To a young person wanting to decide a career path at the age of 15-16, this is not very appealing when compared to other professions.

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  • I graduated several years ago and as a result I earn a fair bit more than that. Salary is generally better in large corporations. It is typical for smaller firms to pay less and this is probably one of the reasons they struggle to recruit. I do feel a bit mislead in my younger days when I was informed about careers in engineering. I can only blame myself for not researching it more. I'm very good at what I do and it does have good job satisfaction. Paying the bills at the end of the day is a different matter. Perhaps things will change for the better in the future. I hope it is soon or else I will have to consider a career change/side step in the alternatives that engineers do such as accounting.. perhaps. Maybe I will look abroad first.

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