New chief operating officer of skills specialist Semta on the need to bridge the skills gap

After taking over as head of skills specialist Semta, North East-born Ann Watson explains how employers and educators are joining forces to improve the quality of teaching and training in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects - essential to engineering and the future of the UK economy

Ann Watson, chief operator officer of Semta
Ann Watson, chief operator officer of Semta

As a daughter of the North East, I am both proud of its industrial heritage and excited by what the future holds.

However, there is a real danger the region, and the UK as a whole, could miss out on the opportunities within advanced manufacturing and engineering due to ignorance and a lack of skills.

Semta has long argued that educators and business need to work much closer together to address the skills challenge, both culturally and practically.

Time and again, when talking to bright, talented youngsters, we hear tales of academic snobbery – career advisers actively obstructing them from taking a vocational qualification and a career in industry.

Many are being driven into higher education so schools can simply tick a box to say a pupil has gone to university.

Our research shows only 10% of educators feel they know a lot about apprenticeships despite their growth and the stated aim of all the main political parties to have apprenticeships at the heart of our industrial strategy.

Only 10% of parents rank apprenticeships as their preferred qualification for their children despite the fact it can lead to a career path which can provide them with a lifestyle which is better than many of their peers who go to university. They continue to learn while they earn, with the potential to gain a degree while working, without being burdened with student debt.

Of course industry needs the best graduates – far too many of those taking STEM subjects are lost to other sectors of the economy – but we cannot allow the poor advice to supress the ambitions of our young people who can’t or don’t want to go to university.

Our research also shows 8,500 people in the North East’s advanced manufacturing and engineering (AME) sector are due to retire by 2017 with a further 15,000 needing to improve their skills.

While the North East has seen a significant increase in the number of apprentices, only 27% of AME companies in the region recruit apprentices – the aim being to get this to 50% by 2016.

We need a huge shift in emphasis to redress the balance and build a proper skills pipeline.

Semta has been commissioned and funded by The Education and Training Foundation to develop and deliver a project to drive up standards in STEM teaching and training across England.

The STEM Alliance is launched this month. It brings together further education and industry to develop a higher level of competence, confidence and collaboration in STEM teaching and learning, to inspire and equip the next generation of engineers, scientists and technicians with the skills to succeed.

Activities The STEM Alliance will focus on include:

  • identifying and sharing good practice and the best resources;

  • delivering a series of workshops and events for new and existing STEM teachers and tutors;

  • increasing the number of staff entering STEM training programmes and retaining them;

  • actively engaging with employers, including employer secondment and work placement opportunities for tutors and trainers.

A STEM register will be created, with the aim of signing up more than 1,000 employers to provide work-based professional development for STEM teachers and tutors. Time is of the essence.

Research by the CBI indicates 20% of the UK’s workforce - 5.8m people – is employed in STEM-based occupations. It also reported that 42% of employers currently experience difficulties in recruiting STEM-proficient staff at all levels of expertise, from apprentices to postgraduates.

It is clear there is a shortage of specialist STEM teachers and tutors. A recent report by Engineering UK revealed almost a quarter of those in secondary schools teaching maths (23%) and chemistry (24%), and a third teaching physics (34%) have no qualification in the subject beyond A-level.

All very concerning when latest estimates suggest the STEM sector requires 160,000 engineers, scientists and technicians per year by 2020.

Success in promoting science and maths to young people, and encouraging continued STEM study beyond school, depends on high quality teaching delivered by subject specialists.

It is in everyone’s interests that employers and educators create a climate for talent to thrive, whether that be those delivering the knowledge or those learning it, to ensure the North East and the UK has a highly motivated, highly skilled, world class workforce for generations to come.

Who is Ann Watson?

Ann Watson takes over as chief executive of Semta on January 1 next year.

She is stepping up from her current role as chief operating officer at Semta, which is engineering skills for the future.

Ann’s passion for engineering comes from her family history and being raised in Teesside’s industrial heartland.

Born in Saltburn, Ann was brought up in the South Bank area of Middlesbrough, attending St Peter’s Primary and Secondary Schools, then South Park Sixth Form College. She graduated from Teesside University with a first class honours degree in business studies.

Her grandfather Thomas, originally from Gateshead, moved to Doncaster to work in the mines before returning to the North East, retraining as a welder at Redcar steelworks.

Ann’s father Brian was a welder at British Steel, while brother Anthony began as an electrical apprentice with British Steel and has worked through the various iterations of the company ever since. 

Ann was UK Marketing Manager for Davy International which then became Kvaerner and was responsible for the marketing of the Iron and Steel division in Stockton. She went on to be Managing Director of Semta’s awarding organisation EAL, before being seconded to her current role last year.

What is Semta?

Semta is employer-led and responsible for equipping the UK’s vital engineering, science and manufacturing technologies sectors with the skills to compete on the global stage. These sectors are the powerhouse of the economy and their skills and productivity are fundamental to UK recovery and future prosperity.

Semta represents 138,000 companies with a 1.66 million-strong workforce, which generates annual revenues of £309 billion for the UK economy

Sectors include: aerospace, automotive, composites, electrical, electronics, marine, mechanical, metals, renewables, defence, rail and space sectors.

Together, these sectors need two million talented new entrants by the time today’s primary school pupils reach working age

The UK requires 160,000 STEM graduates each year for the period 2012-2020. We are only producing circa 90,000 STEM graduates each year, including international students. Semta aims to put the people-skills-talent pipeline in place, helping to inspire and skill the next generation of Great British Engineers


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer