The Paul Jackson Blog: Apprenticeship Levy represents a chance to boost skills

Guest Blog
Paul Jackson

There’s been a lot of talk about skills recently, what we need to see now is action, says the Chief Executive of EngineeringUK

The 2017 Engineering UK report again highlights the need to improve the volume of people entering the industry and improving the skills of those within it. Skills made the top two in the ten pillars of the Industrial Strategy and the apprenticeship levy has the potential to diversify the talent pool and there has been the welcome announcement of FE investment of £500m, which will see an increase in the number of training hours – that can only be a good thing for technical subjects.

Engineering apprenticeship starts in England are at their highest for ten years (108,000), though with females making up only 7% of those apprentices we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back quite yet. There is much more to be done to encourage more young people, of all backgrounds, to consider an apprenticeship in engineering.

The introduction of the levy should see more employers recruiting 16 year olds. Hopefully not recruiting to stereotypes but using it as a chance to recruit from a more diverse talent pool. These teenagers – whatever their gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background – will almost all have studied maths and science as core subjects. The apprenticeship levy could be a one-time opportunity not to recruit a cohort of engineering apprentices in the same image as the previous one – we’ll be sorry if we miss it.

Apprenticeship recruitment is picking up and 2015/16 saw a 5% growth in applicants to higher education engineering courses but this is no time to be complacent. The perception of engineering is improving, with 51% of 11-16 year olds now saying they would consider a career in engineering and 96% of teachers saying they would recommend the industry to their pupils. To capitalise on this more must be done to inspire young people from all backgrounds and to keep girls in the talent pipeline.

Girls make up almost half of students taking GSCE Physics, this drops to just 22% at A level and 15% of engineering and technology undergraduates. Little wonder then that women make up no more than 13% of the engineering workforce. With 186,000 people with engineering skills needed annually through to 2024 this has to change.

The number of engineering companies continues to rise (7% last year) and the 650,000 engineering companies provide 19% of total UK employment and contribute £486bn to UK GDP. Engineering remains a hugely productive industry that as well as improving lives makes a significant contribution to the economy. The concern is around how that can be sustained given the skills gap, particularly in light of the decision to leave the EU.

Engineering relies strongly on talent from outside of the UK and nearly half the jobs listed for skilled immigrants to address UK shortages are in engineering. 40% of Crossrail employees are from overseas. If the same ratios were to be applied and we were forced to rely on solely on home-grown talent HS2 would only get as far as the Chilterns – where it’s not all popular, as I understand it!

While it’s great to see a focus on the foundations in the Industrial Strategy, there remains a question as to whether post-Brexit we will be strong enough to address the continuing skills gap. An Industrial Strategy needs to go further and include an investment commitment to make it work. The collective industry response aims to help shape an industrial strategy that works for the UK and for engineering, so do take the time to contribute. The time ahead will be a time of change (both personally and nationally), by working together with a clear focus we can help ensure a bright future for engineering.