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We must work to help unlock the potential of apprenticeships

(Adobe Stock)

4 min read

Governments around the world are grappling with some huge challenges, but this feels especially acute here in the UK.

The economy is really struggling with both high inflation and sluggish growth. We are the only major economy in Europe still to recover to pre-Covid levels. Add to that both the high numbers who are economically inactive, and our enduring low productivity, and it is very hard to see how we then adapt to the need to change the economy in response to the opportunities of net zero, digital innovation, and whatever we call levelling up these days.

That is why I am excited to be working with Lord David Willetts to co-chair an inquiry, in partnership with EngineeringUK, into the uptake of engineering, manufacturing and technology apprenticeships. David brings his immense experience and insights from his time in government and in leading policy making, and I will bring my experience in both schools and as a former employment minister.

Apprenticeships in the engineering sector have been in decline for a number of years

There is an urgent need for our skills system to be working well to give a hopeful future for both our young people and the nation’s economy. However apprenticeships in the engineering sector have been in decline for a number of years.

While engineering-related apprenticeships have fared better than other sectors, it has still seen a decline of nine per cent across engineering-related subjects in the number of starts since 2014/2015. In the engineering sector, this decline is particularly pronounced in ‘Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies’, where we have seen a 34 per cent fall in apprenticeships starts since 2014/15.

At the same time, the picture is also rather bleak for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, young people aged 16-18 and for those seeking lower-level apprenticeships. For example, Level 2 apprenticeship starts in the sector have declined from a high of around 67,000 apprenticeships starts in 2015/16 to around 31,000 in 2021/22.

The inquiry, which launched last month, aims to explore the reasons behind this picture of decline, against the backdrop of the broader decline in apprenticeships starts. In particular we want to better understand the barriers facing young people in pursuing apprenticeships in engineering, manufacturing and technology, and we will drill down into the differences between under 18s and under 25s. Of course this is not just about barriers. What are the solutions and good practice which could help to increase the number and diversity of young people starting and completing engineering, manufacturing and technology apprenticeships? 

Organisations such as EngineeringUK are already doing a lot to promote apprenticeships to young people. But with this inquiry we are hoping to find out what more needs to be done to ensure that more young people, including more 16-18 year olds, have access to, and want to take up, an apprenticeship in the engineering and technology sector. As a result we hope to enable these sectors to grow, and sustain that growth, to support the economic and social agenda in the UK. 
The inquiry call for evidence is open and we’re urging all those involved with apprenticeships to share their views and ideas. We are keen to hear from fellow parliamentarians on what businesses need to do to make this happen, what structures need to be in place for young people to find apprenticeships in their area, and what government and other bodies can do nationally and regionally to support this.

This is an urgent problem. Whilst we wrestle with getting our public sector back on its feet our job will be much easier if the economy returns to strong growth and thereby delivers more money to the Exchequer. This can’t be done without British employers being able to access the skills they need to thrive. Unlocking the power of apprenticeships is key. 


Fit for the future: growing and sustaining engineering and technology apprenticeships for young people inquiry is taking evidence until the 27 February,

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