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Can apprenticeships address the UK skills gap?

26 February 2019

According to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the UK's current lack of STEM skilled workers is costing the nation's economy £1.5bn annually. One potential solution to this could lie in apprenticeships.

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With their more direct approach to learning, apprenticeships are perfectly suited for STEM subjects, (science, technology, engineering, and maths) and are encouragingly on the rise. 

In this article, electric motor repair specialist Houghton International explores the current issue of STEM skills in high demand, and what employers can do to encourage apprentices in STEM subjects.

The STEM skill gap

First, let's explore the current state of the STEM skills gap. According to a response by the Royal Academy of Engineering, more than half of engineering companies say they have had problems recruiting the experienced engineers they need. This demand for skilled and experienced engineers is set to increase considerably over the next three to five years – 90 percent of engineering, science and hi-tech businesses expect this to be the case. But what is causing this gap?

Businesses that rely on STEM workers are struggling with an ageing workforce. As skilled and experienced engineers retire, it is increasing vacancies across thousands of engineering roles. Putting a more exact figure on this is EngineeringUK, which – through detailed analysis – has determined that there are annually 29,000 too few workers with level 3 skills and an even greater shortage of more qualified engineers – 40,000 of those with level 4 and above skills.

Naturally, there's another factor contributing to this struggle: Brexit. As uncertainty remains, the UK’s exit from the European Union could create an even bigger headache for those in STEM sectors.

One way to close the STEM skills shortage gap is to focus on diversity. At present, under 10 percent of the engineering workforce is female, while those from minority ethnic backgrounds make up just 6 percent of the workforce.

With roles to spare, will apprenticeships prove to be the key response for STEM companies? 

UK apprentices 

It used to be that you left school and immediately jumped into the working world. Nowadays, students have a wealth of opportunities to choose from, whether it’s A-levels, BTECs or apprenticeships – and the latter is growing in popularity. In the 2016-2017 academic year, 491,300 people started an apprenticeship, with almost a quarter of those under the age of 19. Each month, an average of 23,000 apprenticeship opportunities are listed on the government’s Find an Apprenticeship site, while organisations – such as WISE, which campaigns for gender balance in science, technology and engineering – are continually driving initiatives to help grow the number of apprentices in these sectors. 

CEO of Houghton International, Michael Mitten, weighed in on the matter: “Apprenticeships have been an important part of our business since it first started over 30 years ago and I firmly believe they have been key to our growth throughout this time. As we expand further, our continued investment in apprenticeships is fundamental to ensuring we can maintain a skilled workforce for years to come.”

But the Financial Times notes some of the problems within the apprenticeship programme itself. Between May and July 2017, parliamentary statistics show that only 43,600 people began an apprenticeship, which is a 61 percent reduction from the 113,000 that started in the same period in 2016. This has been largely accredited to an apprenticeship levy that was introduced in April 2017, which every employer with a pay bill of more than £3 million a year must adhere to if they want to employ apprentices.

But what about specifically engineering and related apprenticeships? Has the level here dropped? Apparently not. In 2016/17, 112,000 people started a STEM apprenticeship – up from 95,000 in 2012/13. This growth is impressive and may be a sign that STEM employers are taking on board the warning that they must be creative with their recruitment processes. 

Rod Kenyon, former director of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network, commented: “The traditional recruitment pool is diminishing at the same time as work-based learning routes are facing increasing competition from alternative post-16-year-old provision. Employers wishing to attract quality applicants in sufficient numbers to meet their skills requirements have to look beyond their traditional sources.”

Could it be that STEM employers are neglecting a demographic though? Overall, women account for 50 percent of all apprentices in the UK. However, for STEM apprenticeships, they make up just 8 percent. STEM employers are overlooking a great talent pool if they don’t concentrate on encouraging women into their companies. According to WISE, 5,080 women achieved a Core-STEM apprenticeship in 2016/2017, while 62,060 men accomplished the same in the same period. What makes this statistic even more concerning is that, according to an Apprenticeships in England report published by the House of Commons Library, 54 percent of overall apprenticeships starts were women in 2016/2017. Evidently, women are opting for apprenticeships in different fields, which means that STEM industries will continue to miss out on thousands of potential workers until the popularity of STEM careers increases amongst women.

Improvements to apprenticeships

The government has sent 2020 as a target year to achieve three million apprenticeship starts. So does this mean we can expect more initiatives that encourage programmes like these in all sectors, including engineering? Possibly, but more work must be done to hit this lofty figure. 

The attitude towards STEM industries needs to be changed at school level in order to make the idea look more promising for young people. Career advisors should make it clearer to kids that a university degree is not the only avenue to success and that the same level of fulfilment and opportunity is available with STEM apprenticeship programmes. Perhaps this means a stronger relationship between STEM firms and educational establishments, which can grant more opportunities for schoolchildren to get first-hand experience of how these companies work in practice prior to having to make an official decision. 

Incentives also help. Already, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) offers around £1 million in prizes, scholarships and awards – including the Apprentice of the Year Award – to recognise successful people in its industry, which acts as a great incentive for young workers to enter the sector. 

Apprenticeships certainly have the potential to reduce the strain caused by the STEM skills shortage, but it is up to companies to present them as an appealing route.


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