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. 


Mark StewartGuest Blog by Mark Stewart, HR Director and Country Manager at Airbus UK

Take it from me – large engineering employers like Airbus want to do their bit to help the wider sector to meet its skills needs. Most of the engineering workforce is actually with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-sized companies – so if we’re going to solve the skills challenges we have, we need to have solutions in place which work for those companies as well as those like Airbus. The apprenticeship levy offers a great opportunity to do just that.

The engineering sector as a whole can, and must, meet our skills needs, because our contribution to UK GDP is going to be needed in future by a globally trading Britain which faces stiff competition from overseas. Half of the workforce is set to reach retirement age by the middle of next decade, but we need those who remain to be fully competent in the processes and techniques that the engineering workplace of the future will demand they perform.

Andrew-ChurchillGuest Blog by Andrew Churchill, Managing Director at JJ Churchill Ltd

Our business, JJ Churchill, would not be the success it is without our apprentices. The majority of our 129 employees were apprentices and we recruit apprentices most years.

What I find hard to understand is why other small and medium-sized businesses don't do the same. Could the levy be the game changer in this?

Here I argue why apprenticeships are one of the best investments an engineering business will ever make – and why we should all be using this fantastic recruitment and training route. And if you are a levy payer, why you would be mad not to.

phototwoGuest Blog by Heidi Catlin, IAC Member and Policy Advisor Infrastructure Skills at the Department for Transport 

We're all aware of the skills gap in the engineering industry, and know that women play a key role in solving it.

But here's the thing: We cannot tackle the gender gap in engineering if we don't build a more inclusive and diverse apprenticeship system. While the proportion of engineering degrees taken up by women is low at 16%, it's still comfortably higher than the 3% of engineering apprenticeships which are started by women.

The new Industry Apprentice Council report breaks down the findings from our survey of 1,200 apprentices by gender, and in doing so exposes some worrying divisions. For example, 30% of female respondents to the survey said they were discouraged from taking up an apprenticeship place, compared with just 17% of males who responded.

I experienced this lack of careers advice when I left sixth form just over two years ago. I was discouraged from an apprenticeship by my school and told that it was for "low skilled people". However, I was a strong-willed teenager, so I applied for it anyway.

So once again it’s A-Level results day, when hundreds of thousands of young people across the UK wake up with a mixture of nervousness and excitement (often the former rather more than the latter!) to find out what grades they have achieved – and to take the next step on their career path, whether that means an apprenticeship, further education or university. (All great choices and all of them great starting points for an engineering career!)  

The media has, of course, obsessed and pored over these results all day and will I’m sure continue to do so. The reforms in England, with AS Levels no longer counting towards the value of a full A Level and with the focus shifted towards exams at the end of the second year of study, means that we can expect nuances and differences compared with previous years to be analysed and used to challenge the government. And while I am using this blog piece to do something similar with the Physics and Engineering results, I believe it’s really important to first say a couple of things about today.

Guest Blog by Dame Judith Hackitt - Semta Chair


Although my own children left school more than 10 years ago, at this time of year I always think back to that stressful time for them, and for us as parents, when we were waiting with bated breath for their GCSE/ A level results. Everything seemed to hinge on the outcome – getting the right grades in the right subjects to do the A-Levels they wanted to do, then getting A-Level grades that far exceeded what I was expected to achieve 30 years earlier to get into the university of their choice. Nowadays it is our friends’ and neighbours’ children who are anxiously awaiting those outcomes.

Many things have changed in the intervening period of time – tuition fees, student loans, more universities and colleges to choose from, more courses and a renaissance in apprenticeships, to name but a few. While the choice of courses is ever greater, some of the barriers and obstacles to university are undoubtedly greater – the introduction of university tuition fees and facing the prospect on graduation of a sizeable student loan to be paid off over a large period in one’s working life being the obvious examples.

Guest Blog by Dame Judith Hackitt - Semta Chair


For as long as I have been an engineer, there has been much debate and discussion about who engineers are and how we describe what we do. I recall that, back in the 1970 and 1980s, much centred around a sense of disparity between the way engineers are perceived here in the UK and the recognition and respect that they command elsewhere in the world simply by being called “engineer” – and, of course, between the corresponding levels of remuneration.

More recently, that lack of public understanding about who we are and what we do has been focussed on wrestling with the issue of a lack of supply of engineers to address the massive skills shortage in UK industry now – a gap which is projected to get worse in the future unless we change that perception.

We are all concerned about the problem and we all want to do something to try to fix it. Therein lies part of the problem – as I’ve said in previous blog pieces, there are simply too many initiatives, far too many. Despite starting out with the very best of intentions, what we in the sector have created does not provide a clear way for those on the receiving end to discern which bits to take up and how to find out more about this thing called “engineering”.

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.

Guest Blog from Dame Judith Hackitt, Chair of Semta

img-aboutI 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.

AW INWED snipThis 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

UKESF Logo - WebIn 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.

phil-smith-blog-2Guest 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.

NAW 2017-Logo-10-year-anniversaryI’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.

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