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Semta's Chief Executive Ann Watson shares her views on the latest news, policy, issues and events of interest to the engineering and advanced manufacturing sector. 

 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017 00:00

A Budget short on major surprises but with plenty to be hopeful about

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In the end, the Chancellor didn’t have any major surprises in store on skills – but then, given the Industrial Strategy will be launching on Monday and has skills as one of its major strands, perhaps we shouldn’t have been expecting any.

That there were no major surprises doesn’t mean that this Budget doesn’t contain a number of welcome announcements from an engineering skills perspective, though. From the apprenticeship levy to T-Levels, from maths teaching to digital skills, there are a number of new announcements which don’t radically reset the government’s approach to skills but which will help to smooth out their implementation. Given that many of the concerns raised by employers in our sector have been about the ways in which policies are being implemented, rather than the general aims and ethos of those policies, this is all to the good.

The apprenticeship levy policy announced today is perhaps the vaguest but also potentially the most exciting. Mark Stewart has eloquently articulated in a previous guest blog piece for Semta the desirability of increased flexibility in how employers are able to use their levy funds, with greater transferability to other employers (especially supply chain employers and SMEs) within the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector at the top of the list.

The commitment in the Budget is only to “consult with employers” on increased flexibility, with no concrete proposals in place as yet. I am sure that the employers Semta works with will be among the loudest voices in calling for the greater transferability of levy funds, and Semta will continue to press this case to government, the Institute for Apprenticeships and other stakeholders in the system to help to bring it about. Otherwise, there are many interesting ideas out there, from the modular apprenticeships proposed in the Made Smarter Review to the Conservative manifesto policy of allowing levy funds to be spent on the wages of employees who retrain. I would urge employers to get involved in any consultation process and to bring your ideas to the table.

Apprenticeships aren’t the only way of training up the technical workforce of the future, of course. T-Levels are set to be piloted from 2019 and will offer a technical equivalent to A-Levels; the government has set aside £500m per year for these new qualifications but there have been concerns that there won’t be the capacity in the skills system to ensure that they are taught effectively. These will be brand new qualifications and will be quite wide-ranging. Given that the intention is that they will become recognised as a ‘gold standard’ in technical learning as A-Levels are in academic learning, it is vital that we get the implementation right – so £20m extra to prepare colleges and other institutions for the change is welcome. The various extra funding measures for Maths that have been announced are also welcome, including the £600 extra going to schools and colleges for each Maths A Level student. Maths is already the most popular A-Level and, given that a strong supply of young people with good maths skills is of fundamental importance to the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector, efforts to further boost the numbers taking it are welcome.

It’s not just new engineers we need, though – we also need to be able to upskill the engineers we already have in the sector, especially in light of the looming Fourth industrial Revolution. A National Retraining Scheme, with an initial focus on digital and construction skills, is a welcome development. Employers in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector will surely watch with interest to see how this policy develops and broadens its remit. Again, the Made Smarter Review includes a number of very interesting proposals around digital upskilling, focusing on those workers most in need of it; the aim of upskilling 1 million workers in five years is ambitious but if we’re going to make the very most of the Fourth Industrial Revolution then it’s something we are going to need to do.

Attentions will now turn to the Industrial Strategy. Let’s hope that Monday brings further progress in the development of an employer-led, well-funded, well-regarded technical skills system – and brings us closer to eradicating the advanced manufacturing and engineering skills shortage.

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