Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

Science apprenticeships are increasing after years of stagnation. It’s good news for young people wanting to enter the profession, but and it could also be just what the nation needs as it approaches Brexit.

According to government statistics, from the 2016/17 academic year to July–September 2017/18, apprenticeship starts have increased by 37% and 130% in the laboratory technician and laboratory scientist apprenticeship respectively.

This may look like a huge leap in numbers, but it’s worth bearing in mind that these increases came from a pretty low starting position.

According to House of Commons briefing paper no. 06113, published on 6th November 2018, under 500 people started an apprenticeship in Science and Mathematics every academic year since 2009/10.

Compare this with, say, 138,000 Health, Public Services and Care apprentices in 2016-17, and you can see just how slow the science sector has been in recruiting apprentices.

Benefits to business

The numbers may still be relatively low, but the spike in science apprenticeships is a welcome change for businesses in this industry: employers need highly-skilled, specifically trained staff, but don’t always have the means to fund this training.

Richard Holliday is vocational skills programme manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry. In a recent piece on Education In Chemistry, he explained what the uptake could mean for science employers:

“The business benefits are vast. Cleverly constructed apprenticeship programmes help to prevent hard to fill vacancies occurring in the future, can help improve retention and allow government funding to contribute toward the training cost.

“If an employer has a wage bill of less that £3 million then the government will contribute 90% toward the cost of training. In other words, if the laboratory scientist Degree Apprenticeship is pursued, the government will fund 90% of that degree (which could be £24,300).

“For a small to medium sized enterprise (SME), this is a significant contribution to workforce development that the government is prepared to pay for.”

Protect us from Brexit?

With Brexit – whether it’s a deal or ‘no deal’ scenario – on the horizon, science apprenticeships could help fill the staffing gap left by dwindling numbers of people moving to the UK for work.

Organisations have already started to see a decline in the flow of talent from the EU to the UK. According to the Wellcome Trust the organisation has already started to see signs of a decline in the flow of talent from the EU to the UK: “In the last year, the proportion of EEA researchers applying for our early career schemes fell by 14% and the Wellcome Sanger Institute saw a near 50% drop in postgraduate applications from non-British EU nationals.”

Lobby groups such as the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) have argued that post-Brexit, science should be made more open to EU citizens, further demonstrating the importance of maintaining a steady stream of trained professionals into the industry.

In a report published in March, the group said that the nation is on the same page, too, regardless of their position on Brexit: “86% of the British public want to increase or maintain levels of immigration of scientists and engineers. Only 18% of Leave-voters want migration of scientists and engineers to decrease.” 

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main said:

"Science is a success story in our relationship with the EU. But Brexit uncertainty is beginning to bite. In our comprehensive survey of the sector, research organisations report falls in application rates from EU nationals and candidates turning down prestigious.”

The Science Council also identifies a skills gap: “The UK faces a shortage of technicians across all industries and sectors.”

Apprentices can help plug this gap. Higher Apprentices in this field, for example, will likely be operating specialist laboratory equipment to test and develop new products and materials in science-related industries, and often progress into research and development roles.

CK Science also argues the case for apprentices helping plug the Brexit science skills gap: “Many businesses overlook the prospect of hiring an apprentice and this is a great way to provide an opportunity to someone looking for a break into your industry.

“This is a cost effective route that allows you to train an apprentice with the skills that are vital to your business. By providing this person with an opportunity you may well end up with a very loyal employee who will stay with your business for many years.”

We still need more girls in science apprenticeships, though

This June, a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) revealed that just 8% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) apprentices were female. PAC said this is “particularly troubling given the committee’s previous concerns”.

The report, entitled Delivering Stem Skills for the Economy, states that when the committee examined the apprenticeships programme in late 2016, it recommended that the Department for Education should set up performance measures for the programme that included whether it is delivering improved access to under-represented groups across all occupations.

“Performance measures have been established for the number of black and minority ethnic apprentices and those with learning disabilities. The DfE did not introduce a target relating to female apprentices, because it was satisfied with the fact that women made up over 50% of apprenticeship starts overall.”

This use of the overall apprenticeship statistics ignored the fact that in the science apprenticeships, the gender imbalance is far greater.

If we can fix this imbalance, and continue the rise in science apprenticeship uptake, it should be a positive thing for the industry, for young people, and for the whole nation.

Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

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