So there we have it – the Prime Minister has made her announcement and we’re going to the polls on June 8th for a snap election. But the political uncertainty and speculation that the announcement has unleashed must not be allowed to bleed through to uncertainty and instability in skills policy – because we’ve come such a long way in the last couple of years and now stand on the threshold of, for the first time in a long time, a stable skills system.
The announcement came on the same day as the Institute for Apprenticeships held its formal launch event – but although it may arguably be just as crucial to the long-term direction of our economy and our skills base, that launch was completely overshadowed in the news. I hope that as government begins to wind down and politicians go into campaigning mode, the Institute will be working flat out to ready itself to work under whichever government is returned on June 8th.
This week, we’ve been focusing on the Industrial Strategy. This is good timing, given that it’s also British Science Week – the UK is genuinely world-leading in scientific research and development, and protecting and enhancing our research base is going to be central to ensuring we enjoy a prosperous future. So the £4.7bn extra earmarked in the Green Paper for UK science to 2020-1 is very welcome.
I was pleased to be given the opportunity to speak at a panel event on the Industrial Strategy hosted at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers yesterday. As I have said repeatedly, and as I said yesterday, we cannot hope to have a working Industrial Strategy without a strong skills strategy also being developed to underpin it. Given the continuing skills shortages we’re facing in engineering, the development of a strategy which effectively links education and training provision with actual employer need is timely – but with half of our sector’s workforce set to retire in the next decade, we really do need to get this right first time.
I’m delighted, as the head of the organisation championing skills in advanced manufacturing and engineering, to lend my support to National Apprenticeship Week. But the truth is that in the sectors that Semta represents, we don’t just have one week a year dedicated to apprenticeships – they are a tried and tested route into an engineering career, with around a quarter of the sector’s workforce having undertaken one and board members at a number of our most famous household names having done so too. Employers in engineering go into schools and colleges all year round to promote apprenticeships as a strong and valued way into the sector, and they have so many programmes and initiatives up and running to show young people why they should start one.
WorldSkills UK skills competition entries will open on Wednesday March 1st – and the hunt for the next wave of WorldSkills Team UK competitors will begin in earnest. Semta, as the not-for-profit skills champion for the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector, is proud to once again be the organising partner for the engineering suite of competitions. We support the competitions because we believe they offer a much-needed and deserved platform to talented young people who represent the very best of our sector.
They also prove that elite engineering skills are every bit as impressive and as valuable as elite academic skills. We need to remember that the UK engineering sector is facing a severe skills shortage, with one estimate putting the number of engineers needed at more than a million over five years. One of the reasons for the continuing skills shortage is the perception of engineering, and of technical skills in general, as being less impressive and less worthy than more academic pursuits. Success in skills competitions requires not just a steady hand, but a sharp mind and a flair for creativity – attributes which are much needed across the engineering sector.
It's been such a busy year - and if you were worried 2017 would be less exciting, don't be. It's going to be another year of rapid policy development and change, and at Semta we will be working hard to ensure we get policies from government which meet our sector's needs.
Nowhere is the need for a strong sectoral voice more pressing than in the case of the apprenticeship levy. It's coming in April and is going to mean a wholesale change in how apprenticeships are funded. We've been working with government from the start to ensure the needs of employers in our sector are taken into account, and we've had some really important wins on transfer of funding to supply chains and funding of qualifications where employers want them to take but two examples. We'll keep fighting for a levy system which keeps advanced manufacturing and engineering funds in the sector, and the Semta Group will continue to work with employers to help them understand the levy and consider how they might make best use of their funding. This is especially crucial for the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which make up the majority of the sector, many of which have paybills over £3 million and will thus be subject to the levy. Most SMEs won’t pay the levy, of course, and we’re here to help them to make sense of this brave new world too.
It was very pleasing to hear the Chancellor focusing so heavily on boosting flagging UK productivity in his first Autumn Statement. We continue to lag behind international competitors like Germany and the effect of this is that UK workers have to work longer hours and for lower wages.
The Chancellor’s focus on infrastructure investment is correct, too, and the £23bn he announced is welcome. Compared with our rivals, Britain’s road network is crumbling, our trains are congested and slow, and our broadband is lethargic. A 21st century economy cannot continue to grow if the crucial infrastructure businesses and employees depend on was built in the last century (or in the case of the rail network, the century before that). Wrapped around this is a developing Industrial Strategy, previously a taboo phrase, which will target this infrastructure investment at the geographic areas where it can have the most impact.
The government has today published a new tranche of apprenticeship levy information and guidance, taking into account the responses to a consultation undertaken after August's update – and there's further good news for the advanced manufacturing and engineering (AME) sector.
The lengthened 'use it or lose it' period for apprenticeship levy funding will be especially welcome to employers in AME. The government's own research, published today along with the new guidance, shows that AME employers' apprentice recruitment behaviour will not be especially affected by the introduction of the levy – they will take on the number of apprentices they need to meet their skills needs, because overtraining is so expensive when things like supervision, wages and equipment are taken into consideration. As we've always known, the report also shows that engineering employers do not see much of an alternative to apprenticeship training to meet their skills needs – 26% of the sector's workforce has undertaken an apprenticeship, against just 10% of the wider workforce.
We all know that advanced manufacturing and engineering is a high-skill, high-value sector. Semta shouts about it constantly – in the news, on our website, in meetings with government, on social media – and will continue to do so.
But within our sector’s amazing workforce, there are some truly extraordinary people. The trainer whose dedication means hundreds of young people are given the very best start in the sector. The apprentice who quickly gets to grips with her role and acts as an ambassador and role model to others. The graduate whose energy and inquiring mind give a department a new lease of life.
That’s why I am asking you to make sure the talent in British engineering is recognised by entering for one of our prestigious Semta Skills Awards.
It's been a bit of a mixed bag of a GCSE results day from the point of view of engineering, but then it's been a bit of a mixed bag all round – the headline is that achievement is falling across the board, with resits accounting for some but not all of the drop. We have seen some modest decreases in A* and A grade achievement, and in the key A*-C measure on which schools are judged it's variable, with Engineering seeing a rise (to 40.7%, from 40.3%) and Design & Technology almost static (60.9%, from 60.8%) but Mathematics (down to 61.0%, from 63.3%) and Physics (down to 90.9%, from 92.0%) seeing falls.
This is the last time A*-C achievements will be used as the key measure of a school's success. From January next year, the new Progress 8 measure will show how well schools are doing at helping all of their pupils to make progress. It will be a relative measure, so we will be able to see in which parts of the country and at which types of school our young people are making the strongest progress in STEM subjects. We want an engineering sector which is welcoming to young people from all backgrounds, so we will be watching with interest to see where the very best is being brought out of STEM pupils and where more work will need to be done.
Each year, the strength of overall A Level results is almost invariably viewed through a prism of university applications for academic courses. Success is seen as a rise in the numbers going on to university, and failure is by implication a fall in those numbers. However, while this is great for the young people going on to university, we need to ask ourselves: is this what our economy really needs?
We need graduate level skills, of course, and the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector is faced with pockets of high-level skills shortages. However, we hear time and time again from employers that although they are happy with the knowledge their graduates bring, they are sometimes less impressed with their soft skills and with their ability to apply that knowledge to practical work.
I was heartened by the news earlier this week that the new Skills Minister, Robert Halfon, has taken on his fourth apprentice following his appointment to his new role. Mr Halfon was the first Member of Parliament to take on an apprentice and hopefully now that he is in post, more of his colleagues will take on one of their own – at present, the proportion of MPs with an apprentice is barely one in one hundred.
Apprenticeships are, after all, a hot topic in Westminster at the moment, with the April 2017 introduction of the levy fast approaching and the Institute for Apprenticeships in the process of appointing staff and board members. While the government has a headline target of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020, and while apprenticeships have support from all parties as a way of helping the country to meet its skills needs, there’s nothing like having your own apprentice to help you to appreciate just how important they are to the individuals who go through these programmes.
I was delighted today to address a Westminster Business Forum event on High Value Manufacturing in the UK and the next steps for investment, innovation and competitiveness. I focused in my speech on how the sector can face up to the challenge of high-level STEM skills shortages by making the best use of the apprenticeship levy all employers with a paybill of over £3 million a year will from April 2017 will have to pay. The sector has a long and proud tradition of apprenticeships - Semta's Chairman, Allan Cook CBE, started his working life as an apprentice engineer.
With the recent referendum result and the introduction of the non-EU worker levy of £1,000 per head, employers will have to look to the UK to provide the skills needed to ensure that engineering and manufacturing continue to thrive. If employers cannot find a supply of individuals to fill vacancies from the existing pool of workers, they will instead have to grow their own. The apprenticeship levy will provide an opportunity to do just that - employers will be paying it on any paybill above £3 million and, as it will then operate on a "use it or lose it" basis, they will have a strong incentive to make the very best use of the apprenticeship vouchers they get back.
Guest blog by IAC members Lizzie Moffatt and John Coombes
It's been a real pleasure for us to be members of the Industry Apprentice Council, and speaking at the launch of the group's third annual report last week at The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) was the icing on the cake. The challenge now, for us and for the new members who have agreed to join is to build on the positivity and goodwill we saw at the launch and turn it into action which gets our Five Point Plan implemented and heard across the UK.
The Five Point Plan, put together by the 1,543 apprentices who responded to the annual survey underpinning the report and strongly endorsed by the hundred attending the launch, is a credible, deliverable plan to protect and enhance the status of apprenticeships and the apprentice experience – not just across the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector we are building our careers in, but across all other sectors, too.
It’s a well-rehearsed script by now, but as it’s National Women in Engineering Day it’s well worth running through once again the top three reasons that it is so crucial that we up the numbers and proportion of women in engineering – from the nine per cent of the sector’s workforce women comprise at present, to as close to half of it as possible.
One – we have an almighty skills shortage, it is well documented that we need some 830,000 science, engineering and technology (SET) professionals and 800,000 STEM graduates by 2020 to meet employer demand.
Two – broadening the talent pool would inject creativity and new ideas into an engineering sector which relies on those things to remain world-leading.
Three – we cannot afford, as a country, to waste the potential of girls who might be inclined towards a STEM career. If we increased the number of women in STEM to match the number of men it’d be worth some £2bn per year to the UK economy – that is not an inconsequential sum of money, which could be used to build the schools and hospitals we all rely upon.
Guest Blog by Alison Fuller, University College London Institute of Education and Member of the Semta Board
As a very recent addition to the Semta board, I don’t pretend to know everything about the organisation, but my 25 years of researching and analysing the Vocational Education and Training (VET) landscape mean I’m well placed to understand what Semta is trying to achieve. I’m pleased to say that I think it’s on the right track. Engineering and advanced manufacturing is leading the way when it comes to VET and other sectors could learn much from its achievements.
Before I say too much more about Semta’s work, I’d like to tell you a bit more about my own. I currently work for University College London, where I have two distinct roles. Firstly, I’m Pro-Director of Research and Development at UCL Institute of Education. This involves creating a great environment for colleagues to undertake research, collaborating with others to develop research strategy, evaluating research performance, liaising with our funding bodies and stakeholders, and ensuring that our research findings are effectively disseminated. My second role is Professor of Vocational Education and Work, through which I undertake research into education – work transitions, apprenticeship and workplace learning – which feeds into public policy and influences employment and VET practice.
Guest blog by Semta board member and Chair of the Automotive Industrial Partnership, Jo Lopes, Jaguar Land Rover
My career with Jaguar Land Rover to date has been both long and rewarding. By contrast, my time on the Semta Board has been comparatively short, but nonetheless incredibly interesting. It's an exciting time to be part of the team helping to steer Semta's future direction. I firmly believe it is the collaboration within our multi-disciplinary team that makes it effective, just as it is the partnership approach that Semta takes with industry, education and government that enables it to successfully support the sector.
Having joined Jaguar Land Rover as a graduate in 1989, I've witnessed many changes in the automotive industry, not least in the range and level of skills the sector demands. The transition from a largely mechanical skillset to a focus on software, electronics and mechatronics has occurred at unprecedented pace.
National Apprenticeship Week is with us once again and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the national debate. My article in the Independent on Sunday supplement yesterday was a fantastic opportunity to shine a light on Apprenticeships within our sector and hold them up as rigorous and rewarding routes to career success. The engineering and advanced manufacturing sector has always led the way in Apprenticeship development and delivery and can, I believe, act as an exemplar of quality to other sectors.
I hope that the time will come – and in the not too distant future – when we can cease to have the parity of esteem conversation. But for the moment, it is important to keep pushing this message to young people, parents, teachers and other influencers. This is why I was gratified to hear the recent announcement from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan on introducing legislation to outlaw academic 'snobbery' and ensure pupils and students can make informed choices.
Huge thanks to everyone who attended the Semta Skills Awards on Wednesday and made it such a resounding success. The previous two years took some beating, but I think everyone will agree that's just what we achieved. The effort from our marketing and communications team over the last six months certainly paid off.
It was fantastic to be surrounded by so many people with a collective passion for British engineering. We have much to be proud of and that was very evident last night. Hearing the finalists' stories was so inspiring and the industry judging panel had some very tough decisions when selecting their winners. All the finalists deserve recognition, we receive hundreds of applications and to make it to the last 27 they should be immensely proud which is why I'm delighted that we've now introduced the Highly Commended certificate to acknowledge their achievements.
As a relatively recent addition to the Semta board, I'm delighted to have this opportunity to introduce myself and talk a bit about the current engineering skills landscape. Semta's aims and aspirations are very close to my heart and I'm pleased to be in a position to help support and steer the organisation forward.
I've held a range of learning and development positions over the years and with Siemens, have been lucky enough to travel the world. Seeing other vocational education systems in action is fascinating. While this has inevitably led to comparisons with the UK, I'm inclined to think these comparisons are unhelpful. I've always been particularly vexed by the assertion that we should be emulating the German model. I have sound reasons for this opinion, but should perhaps explain my skills credentials first.
At its heart, Semta is an employer organisation. We exist to serve the skills needs of industry and ensure UK plc has the skilled workforce it needs to grow and thrive. Our employer-focused credentials are exemplified by our Board. We're fortunate to have the expertise of a range of top industrialists from some of the country's leading organisations to call upon.
Despite the ever more complex nature of the skills landscape, we work hard to decipher and influence skills policy for the benefit of the sector and are kept grounded in operational reality by the employers at our core and the employers we work with.