Can apprenticeships address the UK’s STEM skills gap?

Deemed to be a national crisis by some industry experts and costing the UK economy £1.5 billion a year according to a report published in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the shortages of workers in STEM sectors are a significant point of concern. But could improving and developing STEM apprenticeships be the solution?

Apprenticeships are rocketing as a recruitment option for most UK industries. But perhaps due to their focus on offering hands-on and practical learning processes, apprenticeship programmes are ideally suited to STEM — science, technology, engineering, and maths — sectors.

Alongside engineering firm, Houghton International, which specialises in high voltage coil, we’ll explore the statistics behind this nationwide problem and look at how employers, organisations and the government can boost STEM apprenticeship enrolments and reduce the pressure on these industries’ workforces.

The scale of the STEM skills gap

So just how problematic is the STEM skills gap at present — and how much worse could it become in the future if not remedied? According to a response by the Royal Academy of Engineering, more than half of engineering companies say they have had problems recruiting the experienced engineers they need.

This demand for skilled and experienced engineers is set to increase considerably over the next three to five years — 90% of engineering, science and hi-tech businesses expect this to be the case. But what is causing this gap?

STEM businesses suffer greatly from an aging workforce. As skilled and experienced engineers retire, it is increasing vacancies across thousands of engineering roles. Putting a more exact figure on this is EngineeringUK, which — through detailed analysis — has determined that there are annually 29,000 too few workers with level 3 skills and an even greater shortage of more qualified engineers — 40,000 of those with level 4 and above skills.

With a skills shortage already evident, businesses have another worry to consider — Brexit. As uncertainty remains, the UK’s exit from the European Union could create an even bigger headache for those in STEM sectors.

A key action point for businesses hoping to close the STEM gap is to encourage more diversity. At present, under 10% of the engineering workforce is female, while those from minority ethnic backgrounds make up just 6% of the workforce.

STEM companies have roles to fill — so could apprenticeships be the answer?

Apprenticeships in the UK

In the past, you left school and got a job. Nowadays, students have a wealth of opportunities to choose from, whether it’s A-levels, BTECs or apprenticeships — and the latter is growing in popularity.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, 491,300 people started an apprenticeship, with almost a quarter of those under the age of 19. Each month, an average of 23,000 apprenticeship opportunities are listed on the government’s Find an Apprenticeship site, while organisations — such as WISE, which campaigns for gender balance in science, technology and engineering — are continually driving initiatives to help grow the number of apprentices in these sectors.  

However, a report by Financial Times makes for more negative reading. Between May and July 2017, parliamentary statistics show that only 43,600 people began an apprenticeship, which is a 61% reduction from the 113,000 that started in the same period in 2016. This has been largely accredited to an apprenticeship levy that was introduced in April 2017, which every employer with a pay bill of more than £3 million a year must adhere to if they want to employ apprentices.

But has this affected the level of apprentices specifically in the engineering and related sectors? Apparently not. In 2016/17, 112,000 people started a STEM apprenticeship — up from 95,000 in 2012/13. This growth is impressive and may be a sign that STEM employers are taking on board the warning that they must be creative with their recruitment processes.

Rod Kenyon, former director of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network, once said: “The traditional recruitment pool is diminishing at the same time as work-based learning routes are facing increasing competition from alternative post-16-year-old provision. Employers wishing to attract quality applicants in sufficient numbers to meet their skills requirements have to look beyond their traditional sources.”

But are STEM employers simply not focusing on demographics that could significantly reduce their skills gaps? Overall, women account for 50% of all apprentices in the UK. However, for STEM apprenticeships, they make up just 8%.

STEM employers are overlooking a great talent pool if they don’t concentrate on encouraging women into their companies. According to WISE, 5,080 women achieved a Core-STEM apprenticeship in 2016/2017, while 62,060 men accomplished the same in the same period.

What makes this statistic even more concerning is that, according to an Apprenticeships in England report published by the House of Commons Library, 54% of overall apprenticeships starts were women in 2016/2017. Evidently, women are opting for apprenticeships in different fields, which means that STEM industries are missing out on thousands of potential workers if they don’t try to make their apprenticeship programmes as attractive to women apprentices as they clearly are to men.

How to improve STEM apprenticeships and reduce the skills gap

The government has an aim of achieving three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 — so does this mean we can expect more initiatives that encourage programmes like these in all sectors, including engineering? Possibly, but more work must be done to hit this lofty figure.

Apprenticeships in STEM industries must be advocated and discussed in schools in order to instil a sense of enthusiasm from a younger age. Career advisors should make it clearer to kids that a university degree is not the only avenue to success and that the same level of fulfilment and opportunity is available with STEM apprenticeship programmes. Perhaps this means a stronger relationship between STEM firms and educational establishments, which can grant more opportunities for schoolchildren to get first-hand experience of how these companies work in practice prior to having to make an official decision.

Already, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) offers around £1 million in prizes, scholarships and awards — including the Apprentice of the Year Award — to recognise successful people in its industry, which acts as a great incentive for young workers to enter the sector.

Hopefully, positive initiatives like the IET’s will help encourage participation in STEM apprentices and ease the pressure on these sectors’ skills gap before it’s too late.


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