Mind the (skills) gap: Time to give apprenticeships the respect they deserve

3 min read

With the apprenticeship levy coming into force next month and the budget announcement this week of a “radical overhaul” of technical education following Brexit, we are at last starting to take some meaningful action around the UK skills gap.

With our technical education lacking the stature it does in many other countries, it is right that we rewire the way education, employers and industry bodies work together to establish work-based routes into engineering as an attractive route into our profession.

The introduction of “T-levels” is an important part of this. Abandoning the current spaghetti soup – a confusing feature of the current vocational qualification landscape - will make it easier for employers to understand the level of learning attained by school-leavers. For young people the hope is that studying for a “T-level” will garner the same respect as a traditional A-level.

Meanwhile, the introduction of apprenticeship levy in April will stimulate employers to create vocational routes into work through apprenticeships.

Although the levy may have its flaws and critics, for the sectors represented by the IET’s members, it has the potential to help make up the shortfall of fresh talent we desperately need to guarantee the health of the sector in the future.

Increasing opportunities for more people to follow a work-based route into engineering will help employers build the specific skills, experience and knowledge relevant to their business and their sector. It will also address the lack of ‘work readiness’ among young people starting their careers as reported by employers in the IET’s most recent Annual Skills Survey.

The more we are able to point out the positive impact that engineering apprenticeships can have on individuals who want an interesting and challenging career and employers, the easier it will be to attract future apprentices and to show this route into industry is just as valid as any other.

Apprenticeships in action

There are countless examples of successful engineering professionals who are living proof of this.

Last year’s IET Apprentice of the Year award was given to young engineer Josh Barber for his direct involvement in a client’s wind farm grid connection project at global technology company ABB.

His cost-saving redesign for a supplies pillar-marshalling kiosk layout to improve safety, efficiency and reduce installation errors won approval from senior engineers, his supervisors and ABB’s customers, and has now been adopted by the company as standard.

Josh attributes his achievement to the combination of on-the-job experience, study and financial support he received during his apprenticeship, which has given him a platform for his career and opportunities such as this that university alone couldn’t have offered.

From shop floor to boardroom

One of the UK’s most successful and respected engineers, Tom Williams, currently COO of Airbus, began his career as an apprentice with Rolls-Royce in 1972.

In November, the IET awarded Tom the Mensforth Gold Medal as part of their Achievement Awards programme for his major and distinguished contribution in the manufacturing sector.

Tom’s vision and passion for the industry are legendary. He is a trusted figurehead for this generation of engineers and an inspiration for the next.

My own experiences as an apprentice still give me a strong feeling of passion for my work to this day. After choosing between and engineering and banking apprenticeship (the engineering offer came first!) I moved around departments early on to get a feel for the industry and then fell in love with microwave engineering, which became my specialism.

I worked my way up from microwave design engineering to managing complex military projects for private companies. From the age of 21 I worked with the IET as a volunteer, latterly as part of their academic accreditation committee, and after around 25 years in industry I made the jump to continue my career there. I haven’t looked back.

Support for young engineering talent

The IET is committed to encouraging more young people into engineering apprenticeships through its annual awards programme, which each year provides over £1million in awards, prizes and scholarships to celebrate excellence and research in the sector and encourage the next generation of engineers and technicians.

Our Engineering Horizons Bursary scheme is designed to support talented individuals facing personal obstacles or financial hardship to complete their training as an apprentice with a package of financial support and membership of the IET.

Separately, our Apprentice of the Year Award identifies individuals who have made an impact on their organisation and on the engineering profession. By celebrating their hard work and acknowledging organisations who have supported them, we spread the word about the benefits of apprenticeships each year.

The time is now

We believe that employers who don’t currently offer an apprenticeship should use the introduction of the levy as an opportunity to create a new route to bring in the talent they need to support their business in the future.

In the future, we would also like to see the levy being extended to accommodate employers offering much needed work experience opportunities for engineering students to help them make them make the transition from academia to work. In our most recent Annual Skills Survey, 62% of employers reported that graduates do not have the right skills for today’s workplace.

So, for the 53% of employers who told us that they didn’t know what the levy will bring to them, the time to find out and act is now.