The problem with engineering apprenticeships

Louise Smyth

Andy Owen explores why the engineering skills problem is persisting — and what businesses can do about it

Arguably, the most pressing problem for the UK industrial sector in recent years has been the skills shortage, an issue that will once again be at the centre of the public's consciousness in light of the UK Government's introduction of an apprenticeship levy in April 2017.

The past five years have been a tumultuous period for the UK engineering industry. While stability has gradually been restored in the years following the financial crash, the industrial sector continues to face an uncertain future.

This is driven by what has been dubbed the skills gap, in which the volume of skilled engineers entering the industry falls short of the growing demand for engineers.

Fortunately, the situation is improving. According to the 2017 state of engineering report by Engineering UK, support from the education system has led to an increased interest in engineering careers among young people.

Now, the UK government has put an apprenticeship levy in place to persuade larger engineering businesses to employ more apprentices.

Herein lies the fundamental problem with many of the current apprenticeship schemes in the engineering industry.

By introducing a levy to coerce businesses into offering apprenticeships, the UK Government is taking the wrong steps to achieve the right goal.

Businesses must make apprentices integral to their strategies rather than a financially-motivated afterthought.

For example, MasterMover takes on many apprentices each year across all departments from design engineering to finance.

During the apprenticeship, we ensure that learners are equipped with practical skills rather than just experience of shadowing an engineer.

This makes it mutually beneficial, particularly for engineering apprentices, as the company gets extra work capacity and the apprentice gets valuable skills development, as well as the opportunity to see their work finalised and shipped worldwide.

This is critical in ensuring a sustainable future for both the company and the industry itself. In the 2016 skills and demand in industry survey, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that 50% of engineering companies believe typical new recruits do not meet their expectations. This can be avoided by actively investing in apprenticeships and shaping new recruits into effective engineers.

Naomi Climer, the president of the IET, has echoed this sentiment. Following the 2016 survey, Climer stated, “it is more important than ever that we develop the next generation of home grown engineering and technology talent.” This cannot be accomplished unless businesses rethink apprenticeship schemes to provide the most benefit to both parties and cultivate talent.

The apprenticeship levy is certainly an important development that underlines the importance of apprentices in the future of engineering, but businesses must change their approach and attitudes towards apprenticeships to realise this future.

While the skills shortage has been the key talking point of recent years, it does not have to remain this way.

Andy Owen, managing director of electric tug specialist MasterMover