Tim McNeilly, Managing Director of I.C. Electrical, discusses the current electrical industry skills shortage and why perceptions must change if it is to attract quality new entrants in the future.
The world of work is changing and the range/number of jobs and career options available to young people in the UK is greater than ever before. However, with increasing numbers of school leavers choosing to move from compulsory education, through sixth form and to university, the number of apprentices choosing to learn a trade has decreased, and the electrical industry is noticing the effects.
The skills gap in the UK has been a widely-debated issue for some time. A recent report commissioned by PwC found that a ‘lack of skills’ is one of the top 10 threats perceived by CEOs globally. This shortage is being felt by businesses across the country, no matter how large or small, but for specialist trade industries, such as electrical engineering, lower numbers of budding apprentices is a worry.
There’s no denying that university education is extremely important and is the right choice for a large number of people, however the opportunities to be gained from learning a trade or a skill shouldn’t be overlooked. Across UK industry – not just in electrical engineering – the flow of apprentices is essential in building up the next generation of skilled tradesmen. However, for some, the prospect of undertaking a four-year apprenticeship is not an attractive option and more must be done to promote the benefits and opportunities which can be harnessed by choosing this route to learn a trade.
Start with schools
It should all begin in schools and more effort must be made by institutions themselves, their teaching bodies and local businesses to highlight the types of career which can be had through apprenticeships. Over the past 50 years, the idea of apprenticeships has changed and there is perhaps a feeling amongst school leavers that other routes into work offer more exciting prospects. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.
UK industry is at the forefront of global innovation and the expertise of British engineers is regularly called on for many largescale international projects. Even closer to home, engineering projects such as HS2, the Thames Tideway Tunnel and numerous large energy projects are proof of the varied types of work that young engineers may get the opportunity to work on in the future.
For a large number of people making their first steps in their career, money and progression will be a major consideration. Whereas there may be a perception that opting for the apprenticeship route delivers neither of those things, the reality is far different. Changing attitudes and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in recent years means that employers across the country pay comfortable wages, provide on-the-job training and support their apprentices through college as well. More needs to be done to publicise that learning a trade and gaining a skill can unlock a whole host of interesting – and in many cases – high-earning careers.
Common sense approach
There are some instances where engineering firms are limited in terms of what they can/cannot allow their apprentices to be exposed to. For instance, with the vast majority of building sites in the UK restricting access to anyone under 18, a school leaver starting their apprenticeship at 16 may not have the opportunity to fully experience some of the more practical elements of their training.
Whilst health and safety is of paramount importance, a dash of common sense would be welcomed. Relaxing rules a little to allow more junior team members onto building sites, where appropriate, would go a long way in helping to showcase the more hands-on elements of undertaking apprenticeships. This would, in turn, result in qualified apprentices with a large amount of practical knowledge already under their belts.
There is no single solution to solving the UK’s skills gap and particularly in the engineering industry, employers, training institutions and schools must work together to help promote the benefits that undertaking an apprenticeship can bring. Future career prospects are excellent and young people will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in some of the world’s most interesting engineering projects.