The pandemic, Brexit and the urgent need to decarbonise and reach net zero by 2050 have all highlighted the UK’s skills and workforce shortages and shone a spotlight on our education and skills system – and apprenticeships in particular – raising questions about whether it is fit for purpose.
It’s clear that the UK’s success in key areas such as net zero, life science, transport, food sustainability and digital relies upon us having a thriving engineering and technology workforce. However, to make this a reality we urgently need to increase the number and diversity of young people taking technical routes into engineering, manufacturing and technology, such as apprenticeships. Doing so will not only be of great benefit to the young people who will develop valuable skills and knowledge required for a rewarding career, but will also enable employers to develop a talented workforce that is equipped with the future-ready skills the country needs.
While the latest apprenticeships data from the DfE suggest a move in the right direction, with a positive uptick in apprenticeship starts as we emerge from the pandemic, there is still a long way to go. Despite engineering-related apprenticeships faring better than other sectors, there has still been a decline of 9 per cent in the number of starts across engineering-related subjects since 2014/2015.
The change varies by subject, but the decline is particularly pronounced and concerning in engineering and manufacturing technologies, where we have seen a 34 per cent fall in apprenticeship starts since 2014/15. This coincides with a decline in lower-level apprenticeship starts – with level 2 apprenticeship starts in the sector falling from a high of around 67,000 in 2015/16 to around 31,000 last year.
Given our acute skills shortages and the pressing need for more engineers and technicians, we urgently need significant and sustained growth in apprenticeships uptake. However, if we want to see effective policy making in apprenticeships, we need to first unpack the pattern of decline over time in apprenticeship starts and understand the different factors at play.
An inquiry was launched this month – led by former Labour and Conservative ministers Lord Knight and Lord Willetts in partnership with EngineeringUK – aims to investigate this.
For the inquiry to be effective, we need the views of those involved in delivering apprenticeships at its heart. We’re urging FE training providers, employers and young people to respond to the inquiry’s call for evidence by submitting views, experiences or ideas on how to improve the availability and accessibility of apprenticeships for young people.
FE providers play a significant role in making apprenticeships a success, so it’s vital that their voices are represented in the inquiry. We’re particularly interested in hearing from FE providers about the factors that influence what apprenticeships they offer, including consideration about subjects and levels. We’re also keen to document their views on the barriers young people face in accessing apprenticeships, especially those with different protected characteristics (such as young women, young people with SEND, or those from minority ethnic backgrounds) as these groups are underrepresented in engineering and technology.
We hope the inquiry will open up conversations about how to break down these barriers, inform effective policy making and widen opportunities for young people in engineering and technology careers.
With National Apprenticeships Week fast approaching, now is an ideal opportunity for us to come together and take a holistic look at what drives demand for engineering and technology apprenticeships, and consider how we can make them more desirable for students, colleges and employers alike.
Addressing the challenges of apprenticeships uptake will require an open-mind and willingness to change collaborative working between schools, FE providers, employers and government. In particular, government will need to be open to making changes to how the system works.
Addressing the ever-growing skills and workforce shortages that threaten to hold us back is a matter of urgency. Everyone must take responsibility for their role in improving the offer and uptake of apprenticeships, and this consultation is a first opportunity to ensure they do.
The inquiry, Fit for the future: growing and sustaining engineering and technology apprenticeships for young people is open for evidence until 27 February 2023. To respond, visit: www.engineeringuk.com/fitforthefuture