Derek Simpson argues the business case for workplace learning
The recent publication of the Government's White Paper, 21st Century Skills provides an opportune moment to highlight the impending threat to UK industry if we fail to act now to alleviate current and potential skills gaps.
Manufacturing in the UK is under enormous competitive global pressure, with the quest for cutting costs on every manager's lips. Unfortunately, training budgets are often the early casualties of short-term penny-pinching, when investment in skills development should actually be the priority.
The engineering and manufacturing sector, in partnership with the Government and its agencies, needs to work together with trade unions and sector strategy groups to develop rigorous, professional and in-depth understanding of requirements that can reduce skills shortages and anticipate future needs.
At Amicus, we seek to actively represent and promote the development of skills and education by improving and sustaining the learning supply, incorporating advanced modern apprenticeships, higher education and national occupational standards.
Some of the UK's outstanding achievers in engineering do come from the A level to university degree academic route. But it is not always recognised that a proportion of these highly-successful engineering careers reached chartered status through the vocational route, from GCSE to Advanced Modern Apprenticeship (AMA) and then with employer support, to degree level at a more mature stage of their personal development.
The Government's aim of 50 per cent of school leavers going on to higher education is commendable, but why does it need to be straight from school?
Earning while you learn is an attractive alternative to student loans. It is not unusual at the end of the apprenticeship to be earning between £20k and £30k a year without the burden of paying back the student loan.
There have been many successful campaigns to promote vocational GCSEs and A levels in engineering, and bodies such as WISE (Women in Science & Engineering) have shattered the illusion that engineering or AMAs are only for the boys.
Diversity is not only desirable, but necessary. We need to get the message across to ethnic and indigenous communities that engineering and manufacturing offer worthwhile career paths.
The priority is to increase employer engagement with education, skills and learning. The move from national trade organisations to sector skills councils was to ensure that demand for training would be employer-led. It is now down to employers to refresh training budgets and invest in people and skills. The stark reality is that employers are the first to complain about skill shortages, but are shy in coming forward to offer much-needed placements.
Applications for AMA places are already outstripping the placements offered by a ratio of five to one in some sectors and regions. The current influx of school leavers will diminish over the next two decades due to a demographic shift, so now is the time for employers to act by offering AMAs and graduate apprenticeships so students can earn while they learn.
Lifelong learning improvements in learning supply and an increasing demand for vocational routes into higher education will fall on stony ground if we fail to deliver the opportunities and placements.
Engineering manufacturing currently employs more than 1.5 million people, or 6 per cent of the UK workforce. Employment fell in the sector by 5 per cent between 2000 to 2001, while the number of workplaces declined by 1.3 per cent.
Although the level of employment has declined, gross added value per employee has risen by 3 per cent, reflecting a real increase in productivity. Amicus would suggest this is due to the increasing activity in education and skills, which reinforces our view that vocational education is a worthwhile investment.