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When Louis Warburton was 16, he hadn’t a clue what to do with his life. His big love was cars, so he left school to take a car mechanics course. He hated it; “wet, dirty and windy”. Then Lady Luck blew his way; a friend told him about the week-long work experience scheme at the Bentley factory in Crewe.
This time he found himself in heaven, applied for the carmakers’ apprenticeship scheme and was accepted. When I met him a few years ago while visiting the Bentley workshops, the 21-year old was already speeding on the fast track, studying for his foundation engineering degree at a nearby college.
Grandly titled a “junior resident engineer” in the “body and trim” test department, he was in his element working on the Continental GT and monster Mulsanne models; the sorts of cars that Arab princesses get painted in colours to match their favourite nail varnish. (I promise you it’s true.)
I got thinking about Louis again yesterday when the government announced its latest Industrial Strategy green paper aimed at boosting growth but also finding ways of equipping youngsters with better skills in STEM subjects to encourage them into engineering and manufacturing.
As Louis said to me when we met, no one had talked to him at school or at home about careers in engineering. So my question was simple: was there anything in this new paper which would help or encourage youngsters like him to bypass the windy garage and drive straight to Bentley? Or any of the thousands of fantastic engineering companies that we have in the UK ?
I don’t think so; this green paper was full of fine prose yet lacked substance. There were some good initiatives – the 20 new Institutes of Technology – but there was nothing new that will lift the teaching of basic STEM subjects or indeed, persuade the next generation of youngsters to explore our workshops.
And that’s tragic because there is a skills crisis which is getting deeper and deeper by the year. At any one time, there are around 100,000 job vacancies across the engineering to manufacturing industries which are tearing their hair out trying to find talented young blood.
What’s more, the EEF, the manufacturing industry’s trade association, estimates England needs a total of 182,000 new engineers and technicians every year up until 2022 just to meet the demands of existing engineering projects.
Yet each year there are only 50,000 new apprentices and 15,000 new engineering graduates who come into the industry; no way near enough. The maths is simple. We are educating and training fewer than half of what the industry pipeline needs, let alone might need, if investment and output were to increase.
Here’s a story that tells you why we are closer to landing on Mars than doubling the current numbers. The EEF runs its own apprenticeship college in the West Midlands and last year advertised places for 350 apprenticeships. More than 8,000 youngsters applied but the college took 330 of them. Why so, when such a great number applied ? Quite simply, says Tim Thomas, the EEF’s director of employment and skills policy, most of the applicants lacked the basic maths and science skills. “They would have needed another year to catch up to be able to cope with the engineering even at apprentice level. It’s not just the big multinationals which tell us that they can’t find youngsters with the right basic skills but little family businesses across the country. We have a crisis.”
Indeed, Bentley was so worried about the poor level of schooling in the surrounding district – despite Crewe’s long history of engineering associated with its steam engine past – that it is now one of the main supporters of the Crewe Engineering and Design UTC, which teaches pupils from 14 to 19 technical subjects.
Thomas bears out the shocking indifference of many schools to what’s going on: the EEF employs three people who are visiting schools around the country trying to source talent and promote engineering as a career. He says many schools refuse to see them, and little is done to help them arrange meetings with pupils which is really bizarre, particularly when apprentices and graduate engineers earn far more than the national average.
And the reason? Financial. Schools loose funding if their pupils leave when they are 16 rather than stay on for sixth form. And then there’s the careers advice; most schools do not have a clue about what contemporary manufacturing looks like or what engineers do. They need to get out more – at Crewe they would find workshops that you can eat off with machinery that looks more at home on a spaceship.
There are concrete measures which government could help with. For starters, if it was serious about promoting apprenticeships as a great route into the science and engineering industries, it should change the way schools are funded at sixth form level so they are motivated to encourage apprenticeships as well.
Ministers might also want to look again at George Osborne’s misjudged levy on firms for taking on apprenticeships and go back to some sort of co-funding model.
Most importantly, the level of maths and science teaching needs to be raised across our schools; only 33 out of a cohort of 1,000 11-year-olds will go on to do a engineering related apprenticeship and only 44 boys and 13 girls will study physics at A level.
That can only be done by bribing a generation of pupils into becoming maths and science teachers; if you want to mend the market, you have to fix it first. Free tuition fees for maths and science students might just work.
Yet there is a deeper malaise explaining why a nation that produced the genius of Telford and Brunel has fallen out of love with engineering as a profession. It’s a combination of many things, cultural and social. Somehow the status once involved has become replaced by stigma, and that’s what we need to shift most of all.
It’s a stigma that didn’t escape Louis either. Now a senior quality engineer and studying for his BSc in Management and Engineering, Louis had this to say: “When I tell people I am an apprentice they think you are the broom boy, who couldn’t go on to study more or university. It’s ignorance because they don’t understand how apprenticeships work.” Enough said.