STEM Matters: National Apprenticeship Week

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

01 April 2019

NAW2019 Blaze A Trail logo

Apprenticeships is a topic that has come up again and again in recent discussions around the UK’s STEM skills crisis, so I was happy to see #NAW2019 scheduled to run in the first week of March. This 12th annual celebration of apprenticeships aimed to bring the whole apprenticeship community together to celebrate the positive impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers & the economy.

This column was originally featured in the April 2019 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy.

Published at the end of January, a report produced by Education for Engineering (E4E), an engineering education and skills policy body led by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), examined multiple stages of the education and skills system. The report, Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited, found numerous barriers to addressing the annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians in the UK workforce, concluding that the UK education system cannot produce enough engineers to support the economy, especially with increasing reliance on homegrown talent post-Brexit. Barriers identified included narrow post-16 education options, teacher shortages and an overly restrictive Apprenticeship Levy.

In schools, the report found that while pupil numbers have increased since 2015, teacher numbers for maths, science, computer science and design & technology have not kept pace – and government plans do not go far enough towards addressing recruitment and retention challenges. It also warns that the current post-16 academic system is too narrow, and closes the door for many young people to technical and creative careers.

In higher education, where engineering is a high-cost subject that requires top-up grant funding and cross-subsidy, introducing differential fees could have a disastrous effect on take up of engineering degrees, the report says. It also identifies challenges with the Apprenticeship Levy, which while welcome, is underspent and difficult to understand and navigate for employers, especially SMEs – and finds the engineering profession is missing out on valuable existing talent by not addressing bias in recruitment, progression and retention.

Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT

Regarding the Levy, this tallies with updated 2019 data from EngineeringUK, released as a companion to its Engineering UK: The state of engineering 2018 report. The new resource presents data on the economic contribution of engineering, its educational pipeline and the composition of its workforce. On apprenticeships, the data shows five years of consistent growth in workplaces employing apprentices, from 168,600 in 2010/11, to a high of 262,500 in 2015/16 (56% growth or a CAGR of 9.25%). However, after the Apprenticeship Levy was announced in the 2015 budget (coming into effect in April 2017), the 2017/18 number dipped to 243,700, a 7% drop in two years from the 2015/16 high.

This coincides with increasingly vehement input from industry, summarised by Dame Judith Hackitt, DBE, FREng (Fellow of the RAE), Chair of Make UK, the Manufacturers’ Organisation: “…vocational education in the digital age is as credible and valuable as academic routes – and can supply our economy with much needed talent from Generation Z for the future”.

Apprenticeships – and other forms of technical education, such as the forthcoming T Levels – offer a valuable alternative to traditional academic paths. This vocational route suits some candidates better, both from a practical, hands-on learning style perspective – and by offering an option to earn while they learn.  This can counter fears young people and their families have over the rising cost of university education – and the high levels of debt it entails for some students – perhaps helping broaden access to STEM career paths (which, in turn, could have a welcome knock-on positive impact on diversity).

National Apprenticeship Week 2019’s remit was to showcase all the incredible opportunities doing an apprenticeship can bring – both for individuals ‘firing up’ their careers, and for employers ‘blazing a trail’ in their business and reaping the benefits of employing apprentices. Its launch was marked with news of a new league table of top apprenticeship employers, rating the Top 100 large apprenticeship employers AND Top 50 SMEs. A new quality mark for apprenticeships, developed in partnership with ‘Investors in People’, to shine a light on high-quality apprentice employers was also announced. Meanwhile, thousands of students, parents and careers advisors across the UK joined The Big Assembly 2019, a live video stream hosted by apprentices, to find out what an apprenticeship could mean for them.

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