Apprenticeship Levy limitations and technical teacher shortages threaten economic growth

The UK education system cannot produce enough engineers to support the economy, especially with increasing reliance on home-grown talent post-Brexit, according to a new report.

Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering and with significant input from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited finds numerous barriers to addressing the annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians in the UK workforce, including narrow post-16 education options, teacher shortages and an overly restrictive Apprenticeship Levy.

The report, produced by Education for Engineering, an engineering education and skills policy body led by the Academy and supported by the IET, examined multiple stages of the education and skills system. In schools, it found that while pupil numbers have increased since 2015, teacher numbers for maths, science, computer science and design and technology have not kept pace, and government plans do not go far enough towards addressing recruitment and retention challenges. It also warns that the current post-16 academic system is too narrow and closes the door for many young people to technical and creative careers.

In higher education, where engineering is a high-cost subject that requires top-up grant funding and cross-subsidy, introducing differential fees could have a disastrous effect on the take-up of engineering degrees, the report says. It also identifies challenges with the Apprenticeship Levy, which while welcome, is underspent and difficult to navigate for employers, especially SMEs, and finds the engineering profession is missing out on valuable existing talent by not addressing bias in recruitment, progression and retention.

To address these challenges, the report recommends:

  • Government should review the issues affecting recruitment and retention of teachers and go beyond plans announced this week by introducing a requirement for 40 hours of subject-specific continuing professional development for all teachers of STEM subjects, not just new recruits, every year.
  • An urgent review of post-16 academic education pathways for England is needed. Young people should have the opportunity to study mathematics, science and technology subjects along with arts and humanities up to the age of 18, to attract a broader range of young people into engineering.
  • Government must ensure engineering courses are adequately funded with increased top-up grants for engineering departments if tuition fees are to be reduced.
  • Government should give employers greater control and flexibility in how they spend the Apprenticeship Levy, including to support other high-quality training provision in the workplace, such as improving the digital skills of the workforce.
  • Professional engineering organisations and employers should address the need to up-skill engineers and technicians to prepare for the introduction of disruptive digital technologies into industry.
  • Employers should take an evidence-based and data-driven approach to improve recruitment and increase retention and progression of underrepresented groups within organisations, including by introducing recruitment targets for underrepresented groups.

The 2013 Review of Engineering Skills by Professor John Perkins CBE FREng, commissioned by government, was a landmark report that reviewed engineering education from primary to professional for the first time. Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited is an independent report from the engineering profession led by a group chaired by Professor Perkins. It revisits the challenges highlighted in the original Perkins Review and sets out a roadmap for government and the engineering community that identifies urgent priorities for action.

The report concludes that if the industrial strategy is to achieve its aims, government must nurture and grow its skilled engineering workforce to improve productivity and economic growth. Since the original Perkins Review, the report found that scant progress in addressing the UK’s chronic engineering skills gap has been made and calls on government and the engineering community to take urgent action.

Professor John Perkins CBE, FREng (Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering), who led this report, said: “Engineering is enormously valuable to the UK economy but suffers from a chronic shortage of skills, let down by the education system that removes the option of an engineering career for too many young people at each stage of their education. There has been little progress in addressing the UK’s engineering skills gap since I first reviewed the education system five years ago, but the government’s Year of Engineering campaign in 2018 has shown what can be achieved with concerted and coordinated action. As a profession, we must now continue to raise the profile of engineering nationally and leverage this to galvanise change for the better.

“We need to broaden the curriculum for post-16 education, value technical education on a par with academic progression, unlock more potential from the Apprenticeship Levy, and guarantee affordable, fair and inclusive access to engineering degrees. These changes have the potential to pay dividends in the years to come for young people, the economy, and society.”

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