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IOP report finds physics apprentice gap damaging UK business growth

8 February 2023

Generation held back from STEM careers by stereotypes, rising costs and lack of information. 

Businesses are being held back by a lack of apprentices in key physics-related roles, a report published by the Institute of Physics (IOP) has found.

Despite the pressing need for economic growth, a generation are missing out on the opportunities physics-related apprenticeships can offer, leaving industry desperately short of vital technical workers.

A focus on going to university rather than considering apprenticeship routes is highlighted as one factor in the shortage.

The Solving skills report also flags concerns over the cost of living, travel to workplaces, and employers struggling to get into schools to talk to young people about their options. It also highlights a massive shortfall in the numbers of women pursuing these apprenticeships.

The study, which surveyed nearly 300 apprentices and interviewed 90-plus organisations from across the apprenticeship landscape, found:

  • Employers are concerned that the focus on university-based education for post-18 students and a lack of information are putting young people off these much-needed apprenticeships – despite the fact that more than half of the nearly two million physics-related jobs in the UK and Ireland do not require a degree; and
  • Promising increases in young people starting these apprenticeships are hampered by the cost of living, poor travel infrastructure, lack of affordable housing and stereotypes about who can do physics – with drop-out rates of over 40% in England.

Employers say physics-related apprentices are needed now at the forefront of the new economy, from the green energy and nuclear industries to electrical engineering, construction and digital, but the shortage of these skills is hampering business growth.

A 2021 snapshot showed 9,000 physics-related jobs were struggling to be filled, and two-thirds of physics-related businesses were forced to suspend or delay R&D and innovation between 2016-2021 due to skills shortages.

This has a direct impact on our economy, with physics-based businesses contributing £229bn in gross value added – 11% of UK GDP – in 2019 alone.

Despite the need for skills, the report reveals the difficulties many apprentices face:

Significant travel distances: Three out of five apprentices (60%) surveyed travel 10 miles or more to their training provider, with more than a third (34%) having to travel 20 miles or more. Employers also reported difficulties recruiting apprenticeships in areas with poor travel infrastructure and said the high cost of living, lack of affordable local housing and fuel prices are all having an impact.

Financial difficulties: More than a quarter (26%) of apprentices interviewed said they have or expect to have financial issues relating to their apprenticeship.

Stereotypes and misconceptions: Stereotypes about who can do physics, the types of careers physics can lead to, and apprenticeships being viewed as lower status are also seen by employers and providers as a huge barrier. In 2021/22, only a fifth (21%) of new physics apprentices in England were women, dropping to only 6% in Wales and only 4% in Scotland.

Employers also raised concerns about an ageing workforce and lack of skilled labour, and felt the voice of business was not being heard in the design of apprenticeships.

Finally, the report found a significant variation in completion rates in different parts of the UK. In England and Northern Ireland, more than four out of 10 physics apprentices dropped out in 2020/2021 (41% and 45% respectively), but in Scotland the drop-out rates were less than 20%. 

IOP group chief executive, Tom Grinyer, said: “We must tackle the technical skills gap if we want to drive economic growth in the new tech economy and physics-related apprenticeships are a vital route.

“But young people are being put off key apprenticeships by a perfect storm of misconceptions, a lack of information, and basic practical issues like pay and travel infrastructure. Meanwhile businesses are struggling to get into schools to talk to future potential apprentices and this is holding back investment in essential technologies in key sectors from green energy to digital.

“We urgently need to fix this and are calling on governments, training providers, schools and employers to join a cross-nations effort to boost physics-related apprenticeships – which will pay huge dividends for our economy, the workforce and UK business.”

Jamie Mewburn-Crook, recent apprentice and winner of the IOP’s first-ever Apprentice Award, commented: “Logistically my commute is only 10 miles but it’s a long journey – an hour and a half by train or three hours by bus. Although the pay is good as an alternative to college, I couldn’t afford to move from home to be nearer.

“I had a lot of freedom and resource in my apprenticeship to pursue the science of my choosing, so overall I had a positive experience, but I know apprentices whose experience was less positive or who weren’t paid very well.

“Apprenticeships are a great way into science careers for people from all backgrounds, but scientific institutes and universities tend to be in expensive areas, which can make it really difficult for those from low-income backgrounds. If we want to make apprenticeships work for everyone, we have to fix these issues.”