Despite all of the political upheaval this year, with the general election and the Brexit negotiations to contend with, apprenticeships remain a key policy priority of the government and the ambition to create 3 million of them by 2020 remains in place.
I’ve outlined the concerns that engineering employers have previously, but in building a new apprenticeships system it’s even more important that we listen to apprentices themselves. If we don’t make the apprentice experience a good one and we don’t give apprenticeships the status and prestige they deserve, we won’t get enough young people to pursue them.
I have always struggled to understand why the press take such a negative view on so many topics but other people keep telling me that’s what sells newspapers. That may be the case, but when it comes to scare stories about new technology it does other things too. I have lost count of the number of stories I’ve read about the threats posed by robots and digital technologies and how they will put us all out of jobs soon.
So it was an absolute delight to listen to a radio programme on BBC World recently, part of its “The Engineers” series entitled “The Rise of the Robots”. Four eminent roboticists spoke eloquently and enthusiastically about the great opportunities which lie ahead and how robots will impact upon all of our lives – for the better.
This time last year, my rallying cry was to “keep up this momentum so that, in a year's time, we have even more women in engineering to celebrate”. It is, once again, International Women in Engineering Day today – and although we remain stuck at just nine per cent of the sector’s workforce being female, there is nonetheless reason to remain upbeat and hopeful.
We all, as a sector, know we need to boost the numbers of women in engineering if we’re to beat the upcoming skills crisis. We cannot hope to draw the estimated 1.8 million new entrants to the sector from an exclusively male talent pool, and nor should we want to do so either, as to do so would be to miss out on not just the talent of the women who could go on to become great engineers, but also their perspectives on the sector.
Guest Blog by Dame Judith Hackitt - Semta Chair
In my first blog piece as Semta Chair, I wrote about the need for advanced manufacturing and engineering organisations to work together before creating yet more initiatives designed to solve the skills gap. We have a great opportunity right now to inspire a new generation of engineers, using technological change and the potential to solve the world’s big challenges as our hook – but we need to be sure that our sector is giving consistent and clear messages to people about what modern engineering is and why it’s the place for them to build an exciting career.
Guest Blog by Stew Edmondson, CEO of UK Electronics Skills Foundation
In the UK, the Electronics sector is big, valuable and growing; however, the demand for employable graduates is currently outstripping supply. The UKESF operates collaboratively with major companies, leading universities and other organisations to tackle this skills shortage.
The State of Engineering 2017 report from Engineering UK once again highlighted that while engineering makes a significant contribution to our economy in the UK, there is a significant skills shortage. It is estimated that the shortfall of graduates in engineering is over 40,000. Put simply, based on the current estimates, the UK cannot meet the forecasted demand for skilled engineers and technicians in the future. We know that this is especially true in the Electronics sector.
Guest Blog by Dame Judith Hackitt - Semta Chair
This is a great time to take up the reins at Semta as the new Chair. UK advanced manufacturing and engineering is a highly-skilled, high-value sector, one with a rich and proud heritage and a bright future. We have a great opportunity now to take a global lead in new technologies and build upon the solid foundation that we have – and as the skills champion for the sector, Semta stands ready to play a leading role in making it happen.
We have a really good story to tell as a sector and we have so much to offer potential recruits – good pay, career stability, interesting and exciting work, and the opportunity to change the world for the better. We have a generation of young people coming through the education system now who are so innovative and creative, and engineering would seem to be the perfect fit for so many of these young people. And yet we have a continued mismatch of skills and aspiration that the education and training systems deliver and those that employers require. The sector has a huge amount of opportunity to offer but we need many more school leavers to follow the apprenticeship route alongside an integrated and long term approach to skills – both vocational and technical – which has so far eluded, or been resisted by, the UK system.
A few weeks ago, when the general election was announced by the Prime Minister, I made a simple plea to the political parties – to resist the temptation to use skills as a political football, to finish what we’ve started, and to give the new system time to bed in.
Pleasingly, it seems from the parties’ election manifestos that this call – not just from Semta, but from industry and from other stakeholders in the skills arena – has been heeded. Neither of the two parties that could conceivably form a government, Labour and the Conservatives, is proposing to rip it all up and start again. Instead, each accepts the principles of employer ownership of standards and employer direction of funding, and each has proposed a few tweaks to help the new system to operate more smoothly.
Guest Blog from Phil Smith, Chairman of Cisco UK and Ireland
In an increasingly digital world, do you really understand what skills we’re going to need in five to ten years’ time? Do you think we’re set up to have them in place? Do you think that as a community and government, we could be doing more to prepare for the changes ahead? If your answer is “yes”, then keep reading and find out how you can have your say.
I’m convinced that the UK has a huge opportunity to get ahead competitively and become the world’s leading advanced manufacturing economy - if we fully embrace new digital technologies. We’re already leading in many technologies of the future - AI, robotics and machine learning and other industry 4.0/4IR developments – and on top of that, our country has a strong foundation in science and innovation. Digitalisation could hold the key to helping solve the UK’s productivity problem – where today we’re 16% less productive than the average G7 country.
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.