Can higher apprenticeships fill the STEM skills gaps?

Unemployment rates are now at their highest for 17 years reaching 2.62 million between July and September this year. It is not just that the jobs aren’t there; in the science, engineering, technology and mathematics sector (STEM) jobs are available but in many cases just can’t be filled. This is all down to what is known as the ‘skills gap’; those applying for jobs just don’t have the skills required for these vacancies. This problem was highlighted in a recent Confederation of British Industry report where 59% of employers predicted they will have problems finding staff with STEM skills over the next three years. So where have we gone wrong? Why aren’t our schools, colleges and universities providing young people with the skills potential employers require? What can be done to close the gap and provide a brighter outlook for young people in the UK?

Apprenticeships are one means of addressing the skills gap as they involve industry directly in education and training. As employees, apprentices earn a wage and work alongside experienced staff to gain job-specific skills. Off the job apprentices receive training to work towards nationally recognised qualifications. They can take up to four years to complete depending on subject area/profession and the level of apprenticeship, from intermediate to higher. Apprenticeships offer a paid alternative to those who cannot afford tuition fees or extended periods of time without pay whilst studying for qualifications. The prospects for apprentices are good and most individuals have a secure job at the end of their apprenticeship.

The ‘gold standard’ within the new apprenticeships system, is the Higher Apprenticeship. These were introduced in 2009 in the engineering and IT sectors as a response to the need for higher level skills and academic achievement in these sectors. These apprenticeships represent the highest level now available in the apprenticeship system and are equivalent to levels 4 or 5; level 5 is equivalent to a Foundation Degree with a BSc being level 6. A Higher Apprenticeship is a practical alternative route to gaining a degree-level education for some individuals.

Currently the number of Higher Apprenticeships available in the UK is very limited but this should change with the Government committing £25million of additional funding to the apprenticeship system via the National Apprenticeship Service. The Government has also recently announced a scheme for businesses to be given the power to design, develop and purchase the vocational training programmes they need. In the New Year employers will be invited to bid for a share of the new £250 million Government fund, which will route public investment directly to employers – enabling them to invest in the training they actually need.

In developing the frameworks for new Higher Apprenticeships we need to reflect on the success of the new apprenticeship system. A key question is whether the newly developed frameworks for Higher Apprenticeships will provide an effective solution to the skills gap in STEM and the NEF will be debated this with industry and educationalists last week at our annual conference: Innovisions.

Frameworks for these new apprenticeships need to be flexible and able to adapt and accommodate the rapidly changing needs in the STEM sector. One area where this is particularly apparent is in emerging technologies. The New Engineering Foundation has proposed a higher apprenticeship framework in Engineering Environmental Technologies to enable STEM sub sectors to address climate change and develop low carbon alternatives.

The traditional model of an apprenticeship is based on a one-skill/one-job-role: miles away from the need to develop good cross-sector skills based on multi-disciplinary training necessary for new technologies. At the New Engineering Foundation we recognise that higher vocational programmes including apprenticeships in new and emerging technologies are few and far in between. The NEF has developed the “T-Shaped” Technologist model that supports a structured approach to preparing the technologists of tomorrow. The model combines a number of cross-disciplinary technical subjects with training in specialist fields appropriate for the job markets. Today, most new products and solutions are dependent upon converging technologies. This requires a knowledge base that brings together an understanding of seemingly discrete STEM disciplines. For example, off-shore wind energy generation brings together skills in new materials, turbines, wave, wind and marine engineering as well as environmental management, logistics and project management. The new model will enable those who have undergone this programme to have a career in multiple sectors, embracing innovation and creativity as well as driving enterprise leading to more effective solutions. This contemporary approach will enable providers to offer differentiated programmes to learners and employers.

Quality is key, and is currently too variable and highly dependent on employer and educational provider. At the NEF we are working towards a new quality assurance scheme to ‘assure’ an employer’s apprenticeship programme. The STEM Assured standard will address the need to ensure a consistent and integrated approach to running the programme, so that trainees have a useful experience, and finally that the programme has a high return on investment.

Completion rates need to be addressed. A report into apprenticeship training showed that in 2008/09, 37% did not complete their level 2 Apprenticeship in ICT and Engineering and 38% did not complete at level 3. At NEF we have proposed the need for a short induction programme for apprentices. Our Pre-Apprenticeship Induction and Development (PAID) Scheme would enable FE colleges to improve uptake of STEM apprenticeships and go some way to addressing the retention and completion issue.

A very basic issue might be terminology. Higher apprenticeships are so far removed from the traditional craft view of, for example, the carpenter learning their trade, that perhaps there is a need for a new term to truly reflect the level of academic achievement that Higher Apprenticeships represent.

Vocational qualifications, such as apprenticeships, do not mean a lower value qualification, nor do they preclude re-joining a more academic route and we need to get this message across. Higher Apprenticeships are a real alternative for young people seeking employment who do not have the means or desire to study unpaid or take on the future with a large debt hanging over them. They also have the potential to address the skills gap and ensure that jobs no longer remain unfilled or filled by those from other countries that may already be one step ahead.

For further guidance on the apprenticeship system see the National Apprenticeship Service website and the NEF site.

Professor Sa’ad Medhat, is chief executive of the New Engineering Foundation – an educational charity and think-tank that supports the development of vocational education and knowledge in science, engineering and technology.

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Paul Champion

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