For engineering and technology to thrive, we urgently need more people and more diversity in our workforce. Apprenticeships offer a fantastic route for young people into engineering, manufacturing and tech jobs, however there has been a worrying decline in engineering apprenticeship starts since 2016/2017, particularly for younger people. Earlier this year we launched an inquiry – chaired by Lord Willetts and Lord Knights – to understand the reasons behind this decline and make recommendations on how to reverse it. So, what have we learnt?
The evidence we gathered suggests that while businesses do value those who have come via an apprenticeship route, many, particularly smaller firms, are struggling to find the capacity and resources to take on young apprentices. Companies are also concerned about the quality of training provision and barriers in relation to apprenticeship standards and bureaucracy.
On the other hand, for young people, the impact of the pandemic and years of disruption to their education have taken their toll, making it harder for many of them to navigate their next step into further education, higher education or employment. We heard that not enough young people are aware of, or appreciate the value of, the apprenticeship options open to them or know how to find them. Financial barriers and entry requirements also reduce access to apprenticeships for many young people. Apprentices are uniquely situated between being students and being employees. They aren’t able to enjoy some of the advantages that come with student status (such as benefits, reduced travel, discounts etc.), however they also don’t have the salary levels of those in employment. This limits availability for those from lower social economic backgrounds or those who would have to travel to take their apprenticeships.
The report offers a new 5-point plan to help grow and sustain engineering and technology apprenticeships for young people, drawn from the insights gathered throughout the inquiry from businesses, education providers, young people and many other interested organisations. Launched last month, it calls on government, along with employers and training providers, to work together as a matter of urgency, to rebalance and refocus apprenticeships to make them more accessible -especially for young people. The report makes recommendations across 5 key areas to rebalance education, support young people, refocus funding, enable businesses and for employers taking action.
In terms of recommendations directly related to business, we want to enable more SMEs to play an active role in apprenticeships. One of the barriers identified in the inquiry was the specificity of standards. We therefore recommend that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) works with a broad range of employers, including more SMEs and engineering consultancy firms, as well as Professional Engineering Institutions, to rationalise current apprenticeship standards in engineering, manufacturing and technology to ensure that standards enable apprentices to gain core transferable engineering skills and knowledge valued by their employers.
We’re also encouraging employers to play their part in widening opportunities for young people, for instance, by working more closely with training providers in their area, supporting teaching quality through releasing more staff to teach apprenticeships courses in the sector.
We’re also urging engineering, manufacturing and technology employers to rise to the challenge of skilling the next generation and offer more apprenticeship opportunities to young people. This includes those who do not currently meet minimum maths and English requirements at the start of their apprenticeships. Employers can also consider their supply chains and where possible signpost young people who have been unsuccessful in applying to their apprenticeship schemes to other opportunities in their area. We’d also like to see businesses include the number and percentage of their apprentices who are female in their gender pay gap reporting – this will give greater transparency and the opportunity for businesses to be recognised for their successes.
If we are to achieve the diverse future workforce needed for engineering and technology to thrive, it’s vital that all those involved in training the next generation and delivering apprenticeships take responsibility for the role they play in improving their offer and uptake in the sector. We at EngineeringUK will continue to raise awareness of apprenticeships among young people and their teachers and influencers, and advocate for action against these recommendations from current and future governments and the wider sector.
Dr Hilary Leevers is CEO of EngineeringUK