Is an increased focus on apprenticeships the answer to a 29,000 worker shortfall in qualified engineers? 

Some industry experts claim the shortage of workers in the STEM sector is causing a national crisis. According to a report published in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it’s said to be costing the UK economy £1.5 billion a year. Is improving and developing STEM apprenticeships the solution? Apprenticeships have become a great option to start a career in most UK industries. But because of the hands-on approach and practical learning processes, these programmes are suited to STEM – science, technology, engineering, and maths – sectors. Here, alongside engineering firm Houghton International, who specialise in pump repairs, we take a look at the stats behind this nationwide problem. We’ll discover how employers, organisations and the government can boost STEM apprenticeship enrolments to help reduce the pressure on these industries.

The scale of the STEM skills gap

Exactly how problematic is the STEM skills gap at present? Is it likely to get worse in time if it’s not resolved? The evidence suggests so. The Royal Academy of Engineering states that over half of engineering companies commented that they’ve had problems recruiting the experienced engineers they need.

It’s expected that this demand for skilled and experienced engineers will only increase too, with 1.8 million new engineers and technicians needed by 2025. But why is this shortage occurring in the first place?

STEM businesses are suffering from an aging workforce. Skilled and experienced engineers are retiring but are not being replaced. This is increasing vacancies across thousands of engineering roles. EngineeringUK’s detailed analysis found that each year there are 29,000 too few workers with level three skills and an even greater shortage of more qualified engineers — 40,000 of those with level four and above skills.

One key action point for businesses which are looking to close the STEM gap is to become more diverse. In 2018, only 12.37 per cent of the UK’s engineering work force were female. 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. The latter in particular is growing in popularity.

Since 2010, over four million people have started an apprenticeship, with 814,800 participating in 2017/18. While this number is anticipated to slightly drop this year, apprenticeships offer workers the chance for on-the-job training. Each month, an average of 23,000 apprenticeship opportunities are listed on the government’s Find an Apprenticeship site. Meanwhile, organisations such as WISE, which campaigns for gender balance in science, technology and engineering are driving initiatives to help grow the number of apprentices in these sectors.

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.’

Are STEM employers just not focusing on demographics that could reduce their skills gaps? In the UK, women account for 50 per cent of all apprentices. However, for STEM apprenticeships, they make up just eight per cent. 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 appealing to women as they clearly are to men.

How to improve STEM apprenticeships in order to reduce the skills gap

The government had aimed to achieve three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and, while this target may have been dropped, has this plan helped to introduce new 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 if they are to instil a sense of enthusiasm from infancy. 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. 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.

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

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