Brexit Update – Autumn/Winter 2019
Head of Skills Policy at Semta with Ben Carpenter Merritt, Policy Manager Manufacturing and Megan Hector, Senior Researcher Education and Skills at Policy Connect.
Brexit, a new word in the Oxford dictionary and arguably an event unprecedented in our nation’s history. Hindsight is the luxury that will be afforded to future undergraduates in political science or pundits, irrespective of the outcome. However, perhaps in this maelstrom of uncertainty, it is pertinent to consider what is important to our lives, our families and our financial security. Engineering and manufacturing employers are embracing changes far greater arguably than Brexit. Robotics, artificial intelligence and big data analytics to name but a few mean that what is important is to ensure the workforce have the skills needed not only today but to secure business futures and enable us to be competitive in a global market.
With the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party backing leave and the other main opposition parties all backing a second referendum or remain, this election is likely to be seen as the Brexit election, so it should at least provide some degree of clarity on the direction of travel. However, engineers and manufacturers need more than just clarity, so any incoming government needs to commit to ensuring that the sector will be supported in any future relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.
It is important to remember that, regardless of what deal is struck or what terms the UK leaves the EU on, Brexit is likely to consume British political bandwidth for the foreseeable future. The topic may well impact on key policy packages such as the Industrial Strategy and Made Smarter. As a sector, we need to be champions of these movements, continually referring and referencing to them, ensuring that political support is high on the agenda. Whoever the next Government is, it has to ensure it continues to support engineering and manufacturing so that the sector is able to adapt to the future trading relationship and overcome any challenges it faces.
The sector is already facing a long-term challenge in the shortage of appropriately skilled workers for certain roles. EngineeringUK’s 2018 State of Engineering report predicted that there would be an annual shortfall of 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill occupations in the sector. The supply of workers with higher-level skills is of particular concern for the sector, as EngineeringUK also reported that 69% of engineering and technology postgraduate research students in 2015/16 were international students (EU and non-EU).
A large number of engineering roles remain on the UK shortage occupations list, thus exempting them from certain visa rules in order to make it easier for employers to recruit international candidates for the positions. However, the government’s desire to review freedom of movement within the UK for EU citizens may discourage these candidates from applying for engineering and manufacturing jobs in the UK, given the additional bureaucracy it would then entail.
There are a number of initiatives from the government that could work towards solving the skills gap in the sector. The first T Levels in the engineering and manufacturing route are set to be introduced in September 2022 and could represent an opportunity to increase the number of young people interested in studying and working in the sector. T Levels have been designed to provide a technical alternative to A Levels, simplifying the technical and vocational FE landscape and attempting to provide parity with more academic routes in terms of how the qualification is perceived with more academic routes.
The inclusion of a 45-day work placement within the qualification should mean that businesses can connect with and train future engineers to have the skills and experience needed. However, a Make UK survey earlier this year found a concerning lack of awareness and knowledge among businesses about T Levels, which would reduce the ability of businesses to make the most of the students undertaking this new qualification.
The government has also made changes to the apprenticeships system over the past few years, introducing the apprenticeship levy for large employers and creating a number of new degree apprenticeship standards, with 31 now approved for delivery within the engineering and manufacturing route. This could offer another pipeline for the development of higher-level skills in the sector, although start rates for apprenticeships have fallen by 20% since 2017 and SMEs often struggle to engage in the new system.
Start rates for apprenticeships have fallen by 20% since 2017 and SMEs often struggle to engage in the new system.
The legacy of Brexit/Remain – ‘to be or not to be’ is distracting because either way, without the investment in skills for new entrants and for those already in employment, our future is far more precarious. Politicians and people all share collective responsibility to steer a path through the current turbulence.
In times of uncertainty, it’s sometimes helpful to draw upon the wisdom and experience of the past as illustrated by Rudyard Kipling “If you can keep your head when all about you. Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; …If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; … If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, In or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch….” In other words, we all have a responsibility – to build bridges with those who do not share our views for the common good and for the future prosperity of our special country.
Business needs to be resilient and arguably Brexit is just one more test within many new economic, human and technological challenges we face. Wherever we are in terms of the General Election result on the morning of 13th December, we, the British people must continue to dig deep and show the spirit which will ensure 2020 is embraced with renewed vigour, drive and determination. Together we will recover from the Brexit hangover and the divisive impact on people to consider what is important to our nation’s future.
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