We need the apprenticeship levy to improve engineering skills

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Given the huge opportunity the levy presents to make up the talent shortfall it is vital the government progresses it

Last month’s general election threw up more questions than answers. With a minority government now in place and uncertainty abounding, it feels like things are on hold while the direction and key issues concerning our nation are decided.

A new government, regardless of the winning party, provides an opportunity to review the apprenticeship levy – considered controversial by some – to build on what’s right with it and fix areas where improvements can be made.

And time is of the essence. We are at a major crossroads in terms of ensuring that the next generation of engineering talent has the skills to meet the demands of an increasingly automated industry.

The danger of overlooking the levy

However, the subject of the levy was all but missing in the party manifestos for the election, nor has it been discussed since.

It’s early days still, and it’s encouraging to see the government’s proposed investment in technical education to raise its stature to be more in line with many of our European counterparts.

Where the levy is concerned, however, there is still a big job to be done, and the sooner the better. Research carried out by City & Guilds at the time of its launch showed that knowledge and understanding of it among employers is woefully low; with only one in three saying they are fully aware of it.

Given the huge opportunity the initiative provides to make up the shortfall of fresh talent our industry so desperately needs, it is vital that this government tackles it head on and progresses it.

The opportunity for employers is here and now

We would like to see employers in the engineering, science and technology sectors seize the opportunity to lead the way in promoting the benefits of following a work-based route into industry.

Increasing chances for more people to take this pathway will help employers build the specific skills, experience and knowledge relevant to their business and their sector, and address the lack of ‘work readiness’ among school leavers reported by employers in the IET’s most recent Annual Skills Survey.

There is a need in particular to support smaller employers, who make up the majority of UK business but are exempt from paying the levy, to ensure they understand how it can benefit them. They may see it as an initiative for larger businesses only and risk being left behind as a result.

Importantly, the more we are able to point out the positive impact that engineering apprenticeships can have on individuals who want an interesting and challenging career, the easier it will be to attract future apprentices and to show this route into industry is just as valid as any other.

In the future we would also like to see the levy being extended to accommodate employers offering much needed work experience opportunities for engineering students to support their transition from academia to work. This would help to reduce the number of employers (a significant 62% in our last Annual Skills Survey) who feel that graduates do not have the right skills for today’s workplace.

Support for young engineering talent

The IET is committed to encouraging more young people into engineering apprenticeships through its annual awards programme, which each year provides more than £1 million in awards, prizes and scholarships to celebrate excellence and research in the sector and encourage the next generation of engineers and technicians.

Our Engineering Horizons Bursary scheme is designed to support talented individuals facing personal obstacles or financial hardship to complete their training as an apprentice with a package of financial support and membership of the IET.

Our Apprentice of the Year Award identifies individuals who have made an impact on their organisation and on the engineering profession. By celebrating their hard work and acknowledging the organisations who have supported them we spread the word about the benefits of apprenticeships each year.

John Perkins is chair of the Education and Skills Panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology

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