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How apprenticeships are working to bridge the skills gap

29th February 2024
Harry Fowle
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The skills gap is a growing concern across the globe with a massive set of industries in need of workers yet unable to pick up new talent from the workforce that possess the skills they require. The disparity between the skills required by employers in the engineering sector and the skills possessed by the workforce is concerning for several reasons, most critically hindering technological and economic growth, whilst simultaneously straining the existing workforce to its breakpoint. So, what exactly can be done?

This article originally appeared in the Jan'24 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

One emerging answer is doubling down on apprenticeship schemes. Within the engineering sector, these schemes are emerging as a catalyst for addressing the skills gap, allowing the industry to pick up and train new talent directly from a young age, benefiting both parties in the long run. In the UK, the engineering sector stands above all as the biggest shareholder of apprenticeship starters with, according to ratedpeople.com, an apprenticeship spread of 14%, similar fields such as construction and property, and manufacturing hold the next two highest slots with 12% and 10% respectively.

The current skills gap situation

Oxford Learning College recently researched the skills gap and found that the situation is often worse than people might realise. By 2030, an estimated 20% of the UK workforce, approximately 6.5 million people, is projected to be significantly under-skilled for their job roles. This skills deficit is particularly pronounced in digital competencies, with 27% of UK workers acknowledging their lack of sufficient digital skills for their current positions. Alarmingly, 58% of workers report that their employers have not provided training to enhance these essential skills. This lack of digital proficiency has adversely affected 58% of the workforce in their professional environment. The skills gap extends to recruitment challenges for large UK businesses, with two-thirds (66%) facing difficulties in hiring employees with the necessary skills. Among younger demographics, 88% of individuals aged 16-24 recognise the critical importance of digital skills for their future careers. Reflecting these trends, the UK government has identified engineering, software development, and architecture as some of the most in-demand skill areas. Furthermore, a striking 92% of businesses emphasise the need for employees to possess a basic level of digital skills, highlighting the widespread recognition of this crucial requirement in the modern workforce.

For engineering specifically, the imminent retirement of 20% of the current engineering workforce by 2026, coupled with rapid technological advancements, is poised to create a substantial skills and experience void within the sector. In response to this looming skills shortage, EngineeringUK had projected a requirement for an estimated 186,000 new engineers annually until 2024. This figure underscores the magnitude of the engineering industry's challenge in terms of workforce replenishment and the need for a substantial influx of skilled professionals to bridge this gap effectively.

The role of apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships are gaining momentum in England, with over 40,000 starts in the 2023/24 period according to prospects.ac.uk. These apprenticeships offer a unique blend of academic and practical learning, allowing participants to gain recognised qualifications through work-based learning. They present a financially savvy alternative to traditional university education, enabling individuals to save money or avoid the need for student loans. Unlike typical university pathways, apprentices earn a wage while they learn, offering a practical and economically beneficial route to acquiring higher education and professional skills. The apprenticeships also offer bespoke training to their students, giving them the exact skills desired by the industry.

Because of these factors, apprenticeships are playing a crucial role in bridging the skills gaps, particularly in sectors like engineering, where technical expertise and practical experience are paramount. Here are some of the reasons why apprenticeships can bridge the skills gap:

  • Tailored skills development
  • Combining theory and practice
  • Updating workforce skills
  • Reducing skill shortages
  • Attracting diverse talent with accessibility
  • Encouraging employer engagement
  • Building a sustainable talent pipeline
  • Promoting lifelong learning

An example from the field

Back in early 2023, Electronic Specifier’s sister title, Student Circuit, had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Pallett, a fourth-year apprentice with Enerveo specialising in EV installations and winner of the 2022 Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) Electrical Apprentice of the Year. His story is a case in point of how apprenticeships can work to bridge the skills gap and ensure positives for both workers and employers. As Pallett puts it: “The main thing is that it offers students coming out of school or university the chance to get actual hands-on experience rather than just hearing about it in a classroom.

“The experience also makes it easier to find a job after you’ve come out of your apprenticeship,” now being equipped with the right skills that are desired by the industry.

“Once somebody comes out of an apprenticeship with a business, they’ve got experience with that particular organisation, so their skills are tailored to what that business does. They are familiar with the type of work [the business] carries out and can specialise in it.

“A company can invest time into someone, sometimes almost five years or so, and get a successful employee at the end of it all,” commented Pallett, whom himself has become a valuable asset to his company. A year on and he is now pushing towards the end of his apprenticeship where he we swiftly be employed by Enerveo. Pallett’s story shows how a young individual can take their interest and get stuck into it as soon as possible, learning and earning as they go. What they learn is then married with practical skills to create an invaluable package of theoretical and practical skills which are eagerly needed by the industry. If this approach grows, then maybe we will be able to reach that number outlined by EngineeringUK and bridge the skills gap for good.

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