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Skills Matter Policy Blog

Welcome to our new weekly Skills Matter blog, designed to keep you up to date with the latest skills policy developments.

The blog is written by our policy specialist Stephen Howse. 

About Stephen Howse - Semta Policy Co-ordinator

Stephen-HowseStephen has been with Semta since January 2015. With a background in political campaigns and media, Stephen has a range of experience to utilise in understanding and shaping skills policy for the benefit of the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector (AME). He is active meeting with employers and stakeholders to discuss their experiences and skills policy needs, he would welcome any further employer engagement via phone and email.

Stephen’s current areas of particular interest and knowledge are the apprenticeship reforms and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, Industry 4.0, diversity and high-level STEM skills shortages – his regular ‘Skills Matter’ policy blogs will touch upon all of these topics and more from across the AME spectrum.

Please do feel free to contact Stephen for anything skills and policy related either via email policy@semta.org.uk or call 0845 643 9001.


We’ve been supportive, at Semta, of the government’s direction of travel on technical education. In principle, it makes sense to introduce new qualifications which will be employer designed so that the skills being embedded in the workforce of tomorrow are those which are truly needed. It’s a good idea, in principle, to include a work placement to address the most common complaint employers have when it comes to young recruits – inexperience. And enabling young people to study a common core of knowledge about an occupational group before going on to specialise when they’re ready is an approach which works in other countries.

The issues employers have had with T Levels have never been with the core principles underpinning them – and that is borne out by the responses to the government’s consultation on the policy, published on Sunday as part of the government’s reply. The devil, when it comes to policy, is always in the detail, and although the government has taken notice of the concerns employers have expressed through the consultation process, there is still a bit of work to be done to ensure that they are fully taken into account through policy, so that the T Level policy will be the big success employers want and need it to be.

A year-long review of higher education funding in England, set to be announced today by the Prime Minister, is timely. Although recent trends for engineering have been positive, with EngineeringUK identifying a 9% rise in degrees obtained in 2014/15 than in the previous year, we continue to have a shortfall of engineering graduate supply of at least 20,000 per year – and that’s before we take into account any potential drop in the numbers of EU engineering graduates working in the UK post-Brexit.

It is also a fact that we have a shortage of some key high-level skills in engineering and across other STEM sectors. A cursory glance at the government’s own Tier 2 list of occupations tells you all you need to know – of the occupations identified as having a need to be opened up to non-EU applicants for lack of domestic skills shortages, almost half are in engineering.

When we think about the skills the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector needs, we need to think not just about today’s challenges but about tomorrow’s as well. No sector will be left unchanged by the wave of innovation and disruption the Fourth Industrial Revolution is set to unleash, but there are particular skills challenges which we have to meet if we want to ensure the UK AME sector comes through ready to take on the world and make the very most of the opportunities digitaliation can offer.

That’s why I’m so excited by the publication of the Made Smarter Review yesterday. Chaired by leading industrialist Juergen Maier of Siemens UK, Semta had a hand in shaping the skills recommendations in the paper; we also worked with employers to compile the Skills Matrix (p.113 of the report) underpinning those recommendations, which provides the most accurate snapshot possible of current and known future digital skills needs in our sector.

Today’s the day by which local authorities must write to the parents of every Year 9 (13-14 year old) pupil in English schools to explain to them what all of the options facing their children look like ahead of them making their GCSE choices. This is a new rule, brought in thanks to an amendment to the recent Technical and Further Education Act, and it should mean far more young people hearing about alternatives to academically-focused schools – which may then help to increase the numbers of young people going to such schools. Indeed, it already is.

I remember GCSE results day well. I managed to achieve three A* results – but Design & Technology was not one of them. (They were History, English and English Language – which explains why I’m writing a blog today rather than building an aeroplane or a robot.) No, for D&T I just about managed to scrape a D grade (my weakest GCSE result), my solid performance on the written exam undermined somewhat by my really quite below par machining and manufacturing skills!

I was never going to be cut out to make things, with my poor hand-eye coordination and my mediocre eye for detail. But it didn’t matter in the long run – I went on to do A-Levels and then to university to get a degree. My lack of ability in technical subjects was excused and ignored as my academic performance was seen to more than compensate. To tell the truth, I would probably have been better off not studying D&T at all – hands-on subjects simply were not my forte. (I did significantly better at Physics, where my fascination with the world around us could be expressed through graphs and formulae instead.)

When the apprenticeship levy policy was being drawn up, Semta, along with employers from the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector we represent, were quite clear with the government that it would be good for the sector if funds unspent by levy-paying engineering firms could be transferred to others within the sector. Now, with the government launching an online survey to ask employers directly whether they would like to be able to transfer funds to supply chains, we’ve got a golden opportunity to restate that message and have a direct influence on how the levy policy develops. But we only have four more days to take it - time is of the essence here.

Without levy-paying engineering employers being able to transfer some of their funds to their suppliers to support their skills needs, there is a risk to the sector that we lose a chunk of the money we are paying into the pot. So if we want to keep that money within the sector, we must use our collective voice to ask for it and to show that the demand is there for it. Remember – we have already had one major success as a sector in getting the ‘use it or lose it’ period for levy funds extended from 18 months to 24. That was a real win for engineering, given that our apprenticeships tend to last for three years as a minimum.

The last time Semta published a blog piece on the outcome of the general election – which was written in first draft at 5.30am on Friday morning – much was unclear. Now, following a weekend of backroom chatter and the appointment (in most cases reappointment) of a Cabinet by the Prime Minister, we know more about what the government will look like but less about what it actually wants to do with regard to policy.

The Conservatives’ negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland are ongoing at the time of writing, and the Queen’s Speech has been delayed pending the agreement that the two parties come to. Much has already been written about the DUP’s views on issues of social policy, Brexit and welfare - all areas of disagreement with the Conservative leadership. Rather less has been written about the party’s views in other areas - including the education, skills and industrial policy areas which are of such importance to Semta and to the sector we represent.

Well, as of the time of writing (8am on June 9th) it is quite clear that the polls and the pundits have largely been wrong, and the UK is heading back towards a hung Parliament after just two years of majority government. So what of the stability in skills policy that CEO Ann Watson called for in her election preview last month?

Although Parliament will be hung, the range of potential governments seems narrow. The Conservatives, as it stands, will be the largest party. Labour will not have enough seats to overtake the Conservatives even with the support of the Scottish National Party – and would struggle, given English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) is in force, to implement its skills policy programme anyway as it only applies to England and Scottish MPs would therefore be unable to vote on it.

When people think of energy security, they tend to think in terms of the supply of resources needed to generate energy – be it oil, gas, coal, biomass or nuclear material. But there’s one resource without which we will not be able to generate any energy at all, and that is people.

With the proportion of energy we get from coal and oil dwindling, and with renewable technologies still in the development stage, the government has staked our medium-term energy future on a new generation of nuclear power facilities. But the nuclear energy sector, like most engineering sectors, is facing a severe medium-term skills crisis. By 2025, it’s projected that 70% of the existing workforce will have reached retirement age (UKCES).

One casualty of the snap general election has been the All Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships, which has sadly had to cancel two meetings which had been scheduled to take place after Parliament is dissolved for the general election. However, last night’s meeting did go ahead – and I was delighted to be able to attend, as the focus of the discussion was an issue of the utmost importance to the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector: diversity and equality.

Consider this: more than half of the population is female, yet just 3% of engineering apprenticeship completions are by females. Just 4% of engineering apprentices are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background despite 13% of the UK population being from one. A fifth of the UK population has a disability but only a tenth of apprentices do. One attendee of last night’s meeting who has been working with BAME communities on apprenticeships for a long time told us that BAME applicants have to apply for three times as many apprenticeships as their white peers to get a place.

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