From education to employment

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 report published today (30 Jan).

Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, “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, 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 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.”

Dame Judith Hackitt, DBE, FREng (Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering), Chair of EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said:

“Today’s report is welcome but it is disappointing that it has taken five years to get to this point since the publication of the first Perkins report. It does reinforce, however, the need to desperately increase the pipeline of domestic talent into engineering ready for a post-Brexit world. The report shows that we have barely moved the dial on plugging the engineering skills gap in the last five years and now is the time for less talk which is taking place through a multitude of initiatives and more action by industry and education work together.

“In particular, there is a need to radically reform technical education – creating an Apprenticeship Levy system that is fit for the future and genuinely meets employers’ needs. We also to ensure T Levels do not face the same fate as the Levy but are employer-led and driven and, sufficiently funded in disciplines such as manufacturing and engineering.

“Finally, we need to shout from the rooftops that vocational education in the digital age is as credible and valuable as academic routes and can supply our economy with the much needed talent from Generation Z for the future. Far from offering two separate routes, academic and technical education should be seen as intertwined, serving the demands of industry who are looking for a mix of vocational and academic learning to provide the innovators, creators and makers of the future. This should be accompanied by more joined up collaborative action building on the good practice we’ve seen during Year of Engineering.”

Juergen Maier CBE, FREng (Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering) and CEO of Siemens UK said:

“We need to invest more in our young potential engineers, critically preparing them for the wave of economic disruption that digital technology will create. Put simply we need more STEM teachers in our system to inspire and create more opportunities for young people. And we all know our impending exit from the EU – however it transpires – makes this issue more, not less acute. This review is therefore extremely timely.

“We also need to focus on the existing workforce ensuring they are ready for digital disruption and can prepare to take on new roles in programming and digital design. Better vocational training for adults is a necessity for UK PLC.”

The publication of the report coincides with the launch of a new set of adverts from This is Engineering, a campaign to raise awareness of the breadth of careers in engineering, and give more young people from all backgrounds, the opportunity to take up an exciting, rewarding and in-demand career. The campaign is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, in collaboration with EngineeringUK and corporate partners, and was developed in response to a recommendation in the 2013 skills review. 

Education for Engineering is the body through which the engineering profession offers coordinated advice on education and skills policy to UK Government and the devolved Assemblies. It deals with all aspects of learning that underpin engineering. It is hosted by The Royal Academy of Engineering with membership drawn from the professional engineering community including all 35 Professional Engineering Institutions, Engineering Council, EngineeringUK, the Engineering Professors’ Council and Design and Technology Association and EEF (Manufacturers’ association.)

Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering and technology, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers from academia and business – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society. We harness their experience and expertise to provide independent advice to government, to deliver programmes that help exceptional engineering researchers and innovators realise their potential, to engage the public with engineering and to provide leadership for the profession.

We have three strategic priorities:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses
  • Address the engineering skills and diversity challenge
  • Position engineering at the heart of society

We bring together engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics, educators and the public in pursuit of these goals.

Engineering is a global profession, so we work with partners across the world to advance engineering’s contribution to society on an international, as well as a national scale.

Professor John Perkins was the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills when he wrote the first report on engineering education and skills in 2013

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