James Tooze reviews the current landscape of science and engineering apprenticeships in the UK.

Fewer than 300 science & mathematics apprentices last year

The Government pledged to ensure that there would be 3 million apprenticeship starts between 2015 and 2020. While the number of apprenticeships has increased significantly over the last two years, the number of science & mathematics apprenticeships is but a footnote on the near 500,000 apprenticeship starts in England in 2016/17. So small is the number, they do not register even the smallest bar on the chart below (courtesy of the House of Commons Library):

Provisional statistics show that 290 students started a science & mathematics apprenticeship across the UK in 2016/17, down from 500 in 2015/16 but the number is generally too small to conclude much about trends.

Lack of qualified laboratory technicians could hurt UK science & engineering

A new framework apprenticeship was introduced in 2014 called ‘Life Science and Chemical Science professionals’. This programme has seen 190 starts over the last three years, with 10 achieving their qualification this year. The majority of science & mathematics apprenticeships fall within the laboratory technician framework. Lab technicians are vital for research and STEM education up and down the UK, but estimates show that the UK needs 70,000 new technicians a year to replace retiring workers and to take up newly-created posts. Only 1,000 lab technician apprenticeships have been completed in the past five years.


Lab technician starts

Lab technician achievements
















2016/17 (Provisional)



As a result, many lab technician roles are being filled by university graduates and postgraduates. But skills mismatches and that these groups tend to quickly move on to graduate roles mean that attracting and retaining appropriately skilled staff in these roles can be a challenge for employers.

Typically, it would take two years for an apprentice to gain their formal qualification, but not all apprentices will complete their qualification in that timeframe. The most recent statistics showed that 70% of lab technician apprenticeships were completed. The success rate of this apprenticeship framework remains slightly higher than this year’s average of 66%.

Late last year, CaSE signed a joint statement on the importance of recruiting highly skilled technicians to enhance science and engineering in the UK. Although international recruitment of technicians – particularly in very specialist areas – will continue to be necessary, work is desperately needed to address the shortcomings in domestically training lab technicians. The Prime Minister has recently talked about breaking down ‘outdated’ attitudes to technical qualifications, but the sector and the Government must work together to encourage people in to apprenticeships and ensure funding and opportunities are available.

Women taking engineering apprenticeships remains extremely low

I recently wrote about how the number of STEM students at university has been increasing, thanks in part to more women taking up STEM study. Unfortunately, the proportion of women undertaking engineering apprenticeships remains incredibly low.

As the graphic shows, women made up only 2.3% of those achieving an engineering framework apprenticeship qualification in 2015/16. Only 720 women gained their qualification in a cohort of 30,720. But amongst those achieving their apprenticeship qualification in engineering the proportion of female apprentices has not exceeded 5% in 15 years.

However, taking all frameworks together, women make up the majority of apprentices. This is an issue for a range of reasons, not least because women are underrepresented in the apprenticeships, such as engineering, where the career and earning opportunities are greatest. Just as the gender pay gap blights engineering at every level of seniority within the profession, the issue is also reflected in apprenticeship figures. The reported average gender pay gap is £10,000 a year between male and female colleagues, which rises to over £20,000 a year at Director level. A small encouragement is that of the few women in engineering apprenticeships, the proportion is slightly higher at advanced level rather than intermediate level qualifications.

In order to attract more people to take up engineering apprenticeships, there must be good career prospects. It is not enough to offer apprenticeship places if these qualifications do not provide a viable route in to a career with development opportunities.

In this, the year of engineering, the UK continues to fall woefully short in supporting young women into careers in engineering. Many jobs on the Shortage Occupation List are in engineering roles, and there are well-documented reports of annual shortages of domestic trained engineers at all levels to fill roles in the UK. Apprenticeships form a vital part of the engineering workforce, and can be utilised to provide viable careers for young people and meet the needs of UK employers.

In our diversity policy review out this month we made a number of recommendations that are linked:

Decisive action on diversity data

Mandate the Institute for Apprenticeships to embed diversity monitoring, ensuring coverage of multiple characteristics by sector. Consider options for using funding as a lever to increase diversity where progress is insufficient.

A careers strategy that means business​​​​​​

Schools and colleges need additional funding if they are to adequately deliver on the Career Leader ambition. Therefore, increase the budget for schools and colleges by £40m to fund 0.25 FTE (based on average teacher salary) to fulfil the role.

Evaluate activities to engage parents and teachers with STEM careers and pathways as part of the Year of Engineering, and put in place longer term funded programmes where they prove to be effective, particularly for under-represented groups.

Include a specific diversity function in the National STEM Ambassador programme. Incentivise volunteers from apprenticeship schemes and SMEs, and increase monitoring of volunteer characteristics such as disability and socio-economic background, to allow channelling to where they can have the most impact.

Data mostly taken from https://data.gov.uk/dataset/fe-data-library-apprenticeships, with analysis by CaSE.

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