The UK is facing an engineering skills crisis exacerbated by the impending mass retirement of highly experienced and knowledgeable engineers over the next 10 years. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) estimates a current shortfall of 173,000 UK STEM professionals; meanwhile, 49% of UK engineering companies are reporting difficulties recruiting people with the right skills. Since the engineering sector is estimated to add £645bn annually to the UK's economy (according to the Royal Academy of Engineering), it is obvious that a proactive approach is required in order to prevent a major crisis for the industry and, by extension, the UK’s economy.
Why apprenticeships developed a poor reputation.
The UK has a long history of developing new talent and instilling valuable technical skills dating back to the Middle Ages. However, in the 1960’s, employers, policy makers and politicians were concerned that many apprenticeships were not keeping pace with advances in science and technology and that apprenticeship schemes were overwhelmingly male-dominated. Several initiatives were implemented to address some of these weaknesses in vocational and technical training; these saw limited success as most targeted unemployed youth with low career aspirations and focused on social engineering, low-cost labour and improving employment statistics. The schemes were also deemed poor quality, further contributing to poor perception and esteem of technical apprenticeships and vocational training. This led many parents, schools and in some cases employers to place less value on vocational training compared to academic qualifications.
How apprenticeships have improved.
Since the 1990s, UK government and industry have invested heavily in reforming apprenticeships across many sectors and occupational areas. This included the introduction of different levels of apprenticeship qualification from level 2 (intermediate qualifications equivalent to GCSE) through to level 7 (professional qualifications equivalent to a master’s degree) providing multiple development pathways for all ability ranges across job roles and responsibilities. In 2015, the upper age limit of 25 years old was removed for apprenticeships, making them a viable option to upskill or change careers at any age. This created a clear career and progression pathway to support life-long learning and reduce drop-out.
A Quality Alliance of regulatory bodies introduced a new strategy in 2019, setting out best practice expectations before, during and after apprenticeships. These positive changes transformed apprenticeships for employers, resulting in apprenticeship numbers skyrocketing from 75,000 in 1997 to 740,400 by 2022. Apprenticeship numbers are forecasted to increase in the coming years with the many benefits to employers and learners—not least the opportunity to gain industry-leading qualifications and valuable experience without accumulating university debt.
Why are engineering apprenticeship numbers still declining?
Given the context above, it seems counterintuitive that the UK is still not training enough engineers through apprenticeships to address the skills shortage. This looming crisis is evidently a high priority across government and industry, with former Labour and Conservative ministers Lord Knight and Lord Willetts (supported by EngineeringUK) leading an inquiry to understand the decline in engineering-related apprenticeship applications from young people.
Marshall is uniquely placed to contribute its perspective to this discussion, as it has a proud history of engineering apprenticeship delivery spanning more than a century. Apprenticeships have always formed a pivotal role in sustaining Marshall’s talent pipeline and introducing fresh ideas to it businesses from young people who are keen to make an impact without accepting the status quo.
Through Marshall’s extensive STEM outreach and apprentice recruitment drives, we have gained insight into some the generational trends driving some of the decline in young people applying for apprentices—as well as some potential solutions.
1. The lack of understanding regarding what it means to be an engineer.
Unlike other protected professions like medical doctors, lawyers and teachers, engineering is not a licenced profession in the UK. Consequently, the job title is often misused by people who have not completed a formal engineering qualification. This has led many young people to perceive engineering as a “dirty” job involving maintaining machines in a workshop, or fixing boilers or washing machines. There is also little understanding of the breadth of opportunities available for young people entering the industry, with 47% of teenagers reporting to know very little (if anything) about what engineers do. Most young people do not associate engineering with creative problem solving, inventing new technologies, space exploration or tackling sustainability issues. The UK faces the challenge of changing the perception of what it means to be an engineer. Engineering businesses like Marshall do their part by actively engaging with schools to showcase their work and highlight the different opportunities that are available to students. However, it will take a nationwide campaign with support from the education system, the media, public figures and government to reframe how young people perceive and value “engineer” as a job title.
2. The decline of basic hand skills in UK schools.
Many young people are now leaving school without learning hand skills like woodwork, metalwork and crafts, or a basic understanding of the properties of materials used in engineering. Reasons behind this include a lack of qualified teachers, budgetary restraints and a preference towards academic and digital disciplines. While it is encouraging to see young people using technology confidently, there is a disconnect between creating 2D conceptual designs or ideas and turning them into physical reality. Manual dexterity skills, once acquired, will stay with an individual for life, so it is disappointing to see many young apprentices joining engineering pathways without experience of working with tools and different materials. These hands-on subjects were highly valued 30 or more years ago, and reintroducing them from a younger age could make a profound difference to young people’s perception of engineering and unlock their practical abilities sooner.
3. The perception that apprenticeships are only for school leavers.
There is now no upper age limit for apprenticeships and the government has updated how prior learning is recognised, so age and previous qualifications no longer represent barriers to entry for people looking to upskill or change careers through an apprenticeship. This is not widely understood, however, and we often meet people at careers fairs who are surprised to learn that they can access an apprenticeship and gain a fully funded qualification while in paid employment. Apprenticeships are simply a route for individuals to acquire the skills, knowledge and behaviours to develop themselves and advance their organisations. Apprenticeships also create a level playing field for people from all socio-economic backgrounds to build careers in engineering without university debt. Adults with transferable skills tend to progress through their qualifications faster, making them more productive and valuable to their employer sooner. Employers can use their apprenticeship levy to upskill current employees or, as Marshall have done successfully, run adult trainee programmes to help people with transferable skills change careers.
What can engineering companies do to help solve the problem?
Engineering companies must unite to tackle the looming skills crisis together. National Careers Week provides a perfect opportunity for employers to consider the benefits of welcoming apprentices into their workforce. Marshall Skills Academy is committed to continue growing the Marshall Group’s talent pipeline through apprenticeships whilst using our expertise to help other employers by training their apprentices as well, and this year we are looking forward to welcoming a record number of apprentices from multiple employers to join us in our training facility. Engineering companies should also consider how they engage with schools (primary and secondary) to expose young people to the exciting career opportunities available in their area and to help change their perception of what it means to be an engineer.