Guest blog: supporting vocational learning

EngineeringUK Chief Executive Dr Hilary Leevers champions vocational routes into engineering and considers the much needed support for employers to help deliver the future workforce.

Vocational learning enables young people to gain first-hand experience of  working as an engineer or technician
Vocational learning enables young people to gain first-hand experience of working as an engineer or technician -

Does your company train apprentices and support vocational learning? Are you even an early adopter, offering placements for the new T Levels? If so, your commitment to vocational routes is hugely appreciated as these routes are entirely dependent on industry support and vital to unlocking future talent.

There is a chronic shortage of skilled engineers and technicians to power UK industry. There is not one single way into engineering. Young people have the choice to go down an academic route like university or to explore the vocational options, where they can get first-hand experience of developing skills and working as an engineer or technician. Giving young people a range of routes to enter industry helps widen the talent pool. But we need more employers to support vocational these routes including through offering industry placements.

We recognise that it takes a lot of commitment from employers to support vocational training routes and we want to help. EngineeringUK and Make UK have published ‘Unlocking talent: Ensuring T Levels deliver the workforce of the future’, a new report highlighting the benefits of T Levels for businesses who are desperate for more young skilled workers, as well as the challenges and barriers that employers face and recommendations to overcome them.

T Levels are the government’s new, flagship, vocational training program designed as an alternative to A Levels for 16 to 19 year olds. T Level students take both a technical qualification and complete a 45 to 50 day industry placement. The first 3 T Levels routes started in 2020 with 7 more beginning in 2021. EngineeringUK and Make UK wanted to explore how roll-out has gone in the eyes of employers and placement providers.

The report estimates that T-Levels in engineering, manufacturing, technological and digital skills could need as many as 43,500 industry placements by 2024/25. Yet currently only 12% of engineering and manufacturing employers surveyed for the report are planning to host a T Level placement in the coming year.

The report highlighted various challenges employers face in providing T level placements, starting with a lack of understanding and awareness of T Levels and the support available. That said, employers remain positive that T Levels have real potential, with 55% open to taking on an industry placement in the future. This is great news!

At a roundtable discussing the report, we learned of employers’ success in retaining T Level students who transitioned into apprenticeships. Representatives from the education sector praised the qualification explaining how it has inspired students to engage with new vocational learning routes. Our report makes some recommendations to government to make it easier for employers, including the following:

  • Restore the £1,000 incentive for SMEs to make it easier for employers to offer a T Level placement – 57% of employers surveyed by the report agreed that extending the financial incentive beyond summer 2022 would help them offer placements.
  • Work with sector bodies and organisations to run an awareness raising campaign to get more employers on board.
  • Develop clear progression maps that demonstrate how T Levels work within the current education landscape so that employers have a clear understanding of the options for further training – especially apprenticeships - or employment, following T levels.

Going down a vocational route can help young people kickstart their engineering career. Unfortunately, EngineeringUK’s recent briefing on further education and engineering found that in England there has been a decline in uptake for engineering-related apprenticeships of 30% from 2016/17 to 2020/21 (although this is slightly better than overall number of people starting an apprenticeship which declined by 35% over the same period).

We know employers value technical, hard skills as well as the soft skills needed in the workplace. These skills can all be learnt and developed through vocational routes and potentially at a faster rate than academic routes. We want more employers to see the benefits and opportunities vocational routes offer and that goes for young people too – we need to get the message across that they do not need a university education to become an engineer! Engineering is for everyone. No matter your background, gender, age, level of education and however you learn best, there is a place for you in engineering. This message will be central to a new careers resource we’re developing with colleagues from across the professional engineering institutions. Available later in November, it will showcase all routes into engineering and highlight to young people that there isn’t just one way to become an engineer.

We’ll be playing our part in continuing to promote T levels to raise awareness across young people, their influencers, and employers, and we are looking at other ways we can support T level roll-out. Please take a look at our report and reach out if you think that there’s more that can be done to help.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the CEO of Engineering UK