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Local partnerships key to unlocking potential of physics apprenticeships

9 February 2024

The IOP’s latest Solving Skills report shows that employers’ efforts to bolster physics-related apprenticeships are working – but this must just be a start to help kickstart the economy and give hope to a generation of youngsters in STEM.

By Hari Rentala, Head of Learning and Skills, Institute of Physics

As we move further into 2024, the UK continues to navigate uncertain waters, and with a general election on the horizon, there has never been a time when so much, for so many, has been at stake. But where to begin? How do we kickstart much-needed economic growth? The UK must find new answers to strengthen our economy, give hope to younger generations and put us on the front foot in the global technological revolution to secure a more prosperous future.

Physics skills and knowledge power nearly 2m jobs in the UK already. Whether delivering breakthroughs in cancer diagnostics and treatments, or creating satellite sensors to help fight climate change, physics plays a vital part.

But there is a problem, and it’s a problem we can’t ignore. We simply don’t have enough young people coming up through the education system aware of the opportunities available in physics to meet the growing demand for the roles available. In fact, two-thirds of physics-based businesses in the UK reported suspending or delaying research and development and innovation activities between 2016-21 due to skills shortages. This could have a detrimental knock-on effect for the economy; physics-based businesses contributed £229bn in gross value added – 11% of UK GDP – in 2019 alone.

A smiling female engineering apprentice flanked by two males in a carmaking factory

Something which people are often not aware of is that more than half (53%) of physics-demanding jobs do not require a degree-level qualification. Many of the skills as well as the knowledge needed can be learned on the job through physics-related apprenticeships. But one of the key challenges is in building awareness of the apprenticeship opportunities out there and it starts with schools, further education providers, employers and local authorities working together.

This is further compounded by other serious systemic failings. Many employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), face real challenges accessing the apprenticeship system. Moreover, too often people hold outdated ideas about apprenticeships, including that they lead to poor jobs or limited promotion prospects or that they are not suitable for some people because of their background or who they are. In fact, too many young people are told at school that ‘physics is not for them’ or that ‘it’s too difficult’ and are therefore not informed about the range of varied careers studying physics can lead to. This uninspiring rhetoric is wrong and serves no purpose but to reinforce stereotypes, create barriers and limit aspirations. Perhaps it’s no wonder that in 2021-22, only a fifth (21%) of new physics-related apprentices in England were women, dropping to only 6% in Wales and only 4% in Scotland.

The report’s crucial message is the power of true partnership working at the local and regional level to overcome what might otherwise seem like intractable barriers.

These shortcomings and some of the impacts they have on individuals, our economy and our society at large were highlighted in our landmark report published last year, Solving Skills: Powering growth through physics-related apprenticeships. And they are a key part of why, when the Institute of Physics (IOP) launches its new strategy in the coming weeks, skills will be a core part of it. Since publication of Solving Skills, we have hosted a series of five Solving Skills summits and heard from more than 100 physics-powered employers, education providers, and devolved and regional government representatives. We wanted to hear from physics-powered employers about the solutions they have found to closing their physics skills gaps through physics-related apprenticeships.

And this week to coincide with National Apprenticeship Week, we have released a new report, Solving Skills One Year On: Partnerships powering apprenticeships, to place a spotlight on the organisations who have met these challenges head on. The crucial message that shines through is the power of true partnership working at the local and regional level, to overcome what might otherwise seem like intractable barriers.

Whether it’s regional government enabling game-changing partnerships between schools and employers that stimulate children’s interest in STEM careers, industry working together to develop new training pathways to better meet their sector’s needs, or creative regional approaches helping SMEs to overcome the barriers they often face in recruiting apprentices, inspiring steps are being taken to close the physics skills gap through apprenticeships.

A female Manufacturing & Engineering Growth & Advancement apprentice receiving training

Apprentice training at one of the Manufacturing & Engineering Growth & Advancement (MEGA) companies, in Mid Ulster, Northern Ireland, featured in our latest report 

Even more promising is how, time and time again, these employers report that when they invest the effort into building their talent pipeline through apprenticeships, they reap the rewards – through a motivated and highly skilled workforce that, crucially, tends to be loyal to the employer that gave them the opportunity. This belief in the power of partnership working is also why we are so pleased to partner with the UK Institute for Technical Skills and Strategy, to support its recently launched pilot scheme that will kickstart investment into physics technical apprentices within UK higher education and research (working alongside the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

So where does that leave things? With this new report, the IOP is not trying to absolve governments across the UK of their responsibility for addressing the many systemic barriers that we have identified as ultimately holding back too many young people, and physics-powered businesses, across the country from truly thriving. Far from it.

But we do think it is also fair – at least in part – to challenge the local entrepreneurs, innovators, thought leaders and disruptors to ask what role they can play. That is our ‘call to action’. And if together we can rise to the challenge, we will provide invaluable hope to younger generations and deliver the vital skills needed to strengthen and grow the economy across the UK.

Hari Rentala is Head of Learning and Skills at the IOP