Apprenticeships Required To Fill STEM Skills Gap

Industry Trailblazers

The job market is a hot topic on the run up to the general election, and apprenticeships are a reoccurring issue at present. Now that the worst of the recession is said to be over, focus has switched to improving the prospects for the youngsters leaving high school in the next few years; ensuring they are aware of and able to maximise the different opportunities available to them. The shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills has been a concern for some time, and in January, the global CEO survey carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers (2015) revealed the key concern for UK leaders is the availability of talent. The number of business leaders worried by the shortage of specific industry skills has risen considerably from 64% in 2014 to 84% in 2015, underscoring that the creation of a skilled and adaptable workforce should be a priority of the government.

In the autumn of 2013 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in conjunction with the Department for Education, announced the first apprenticeship Trailblazer projects designed to give employers more say over the creation of apprenticeship standards and assessment methods. In October 2014, the scheme expanded to include over 1000 employers from a diverse range of fields, and apprenticeships have now been designed for a multitude of sectors from TV production and surveying to welding and fashion.

Changing The Educational ‘Norm’

Despite the addition of new apprenticeships, there is still an issue with young people not being giving information on the different opportunities available. Many students are still given advice based on an outdated view of further education, with the expectation that highschool will be followed by either A Levels and a degree, or entry into a junior level job. In order for the UK to continue to compete economically, there needs to be a change in attitudes and expectations so that young people are aware of the alternative routes into many careers. Giving apprenticeships a higher profile is essential if the educational norm is to change and the STEM skills gap is to be addressed.

Speaking at the recent Semta Skills awards (2015), Minister of State for Business, Enterprise and Energy, Matthew Hancock, argued the need for young engineers to be held up as examples for others and given more status in the media. He cited the apprenticeship route as an important factor in the success of past engineers such as Stephenson and Brunel, and maintained that modern-day apprentices were a vital part of the UK’s economic recovery.

Addressing The Gender Divide

There is still a clear discrepancy when it comes to the numbers of young women enrolling in STEM further education and apprenticeships. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (2014) on women in engineering found that overall the number of male and female students completing apprenticeships are roughly the same, suggesting that it is not the apprenticeship system itself that is failing to attract female students but rather individual subject choice. In the academic year 2011/12, only 490 female students completed engineering apprenticeships, compared to 10,770 male students; female participation also fell from 5.9 per cent in the level 2 engineering apprenticeship and 2.8 per cent in level 3. Female representation in other vocational routes shows the same clear divide, and although the new university technical colleges (UTC) do not currently publish gender disaggregated data in regards to enrolment figures, the target of the first UTC is a minimum of 25 per cent female enrolment by 2020 (WISE and RAE, 2014), implying that the current figures are much lower than this.

These figures have caused some concern amongst representatives in the engineering sector. The level 3 apprenticeships are generally viewed as a minimum requirement for entry into the industry as a technician, and failure to complete this requirement is therefore locking potential female candidates out of engineering careers. Those within the STEM industries, the education sector and policy makers will all need to seriously consider the issue of attracting and retaining female apprentices, as fixing the skills shortage in the UK will be far more difficult if over half the population is discounted.


Photo: Department for Business

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