Apprenticeships: A helpful route into work for the disabled

As businesses of all stripes seek to widen their diversity of talent, apprenticeships are proving a useful and practical means of bringing those with disabilities into the workforce, writes Dan Cave

Understandably, apprenticeships might not be the first avenue that HR thinks of when looking to improve the employment rate of disabled people – a rate which is nearly 30% lower than that of those without a reported disability.

With the number of individuals starting apprenticeships dropping year-on-year since 2015, this route into work has fundamental issues.

However, Alex Burghart, the UK minister for skills, argues apprenticeships are well-designed to boost both a disabled individual’s confidence and professional skill set.

He says: “Apprenticeships are a fantastic route for anyone wanting to build a future which meets their professional and personal expectations and goals…which makes it such a good option for those with disabilities.

“[We] have made huge progress in making apprenticeships a more accessible and fit-for-purpose option for people with disabilities... consulting with disabled apprentices to make sure that this is led by those who it affects the most.”

The UK skills minister’s confidence in apprenticeships being a good route into work for disabled individuals appears to be backed by
take-up levels from this demographic. The proportion of apprenticeship starters with disabilities or learning difficulties has increased every year since 2011/12, reaching 12.2% in 2019/20.

However, while the news is encouraging, it isn’t all good: the Apprentice Diversity Champions Network (ADCN) found that disabled people are under-represented in higher-paid apprenticeships.

Separate statistics from QA, an apprenticeship training provider, found that in its latest cohort of 15,000 digital apprentices
only 173 had a declared disability.

This could be because of societal assumptions around what careers disabled people, as well as apprentices, should be able to access.


Overcoming assumptions

Chris Youngs, VP of HR Northern Europe at Procter & Gamble, says the consumer goods giant has recently made efforts to unblock apprenticeship access to commercially sensitive areas of the business.

Alongside this programme, there were efforts to educate line managers and employees on how best to support neurodivergent colleagues that can often be hidden.

He says: “This programme was borne out of a recognition that our traditional approach wasn’t always yielding talent that is reflective of the rich diversity of the people we serve.

“We now align ways of working agreed between individuals and those they report to.”

Yet a 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission report discovered many employers are fearful of taking steps to improve disabled access to, and support within, apprenticeships. 

As Mark Soady, inclusion lead and dyslexia specialist at QA says: “[Apprenticeships] are a powerful tool to increase diversity and inclusion, including for those with disabilities but not enough is being done to harness this potential.”


Funding and networking boosts

Employers needn’t fear having to improve disability apprenticeship access and support all on their own, though.

Businesses, apprenticeship training providers and apprentices can all access additional government funding as well as specialised networks to support disability needs.

For example, the ADCN shares key disability employment information, case studies of successes, and offers meet-ups for employers engaging disabled apprentices.

Separately, the Disabled Apprentice Network acts as a group for current or former disabled apprentices to support each other in their learning and careers.

These networks can help provide employers with the right education to make apprenticeships a good route into secure, skilled, or even higher-paid, work for disabled people.

However, Steve Saville, HR director at Mazars UK, an accountancy firm and government-accredited Top 100 Apprenticeship Employer, explains this can only happen if employers look at improving their employee value proposition and brand.

He says: “We have stuff around brand and social channels [so] if I’m [a disabled person] looking at working for an employer, I’m more likely to be attracted to ones that talk about disabilities and are explicit around commitments.”

Saville also believes employers need to provide support to encourage disclosure of disabilities – widely considered key to in-work disability support – but he says it cannot be a box-ticking exercise and must result in supportive action.

He adds: “We manage that by explaining the process and taking time to ask questions. “We also talk about [disabled provision] externally and try to make things as accessible as possible and look at being socially inclusive in every way.”


Leadership buy-in and holistic support

While working to diversify recruitment pipelines is crucial for disability inclusion – as is differentiating key hiring stages, such as considering task-based assessments rather than interviews – there must be a focus on all stages of the apprenticeship lifecycle.

Sheri Hughes, UK diversity and inclusion director at PageGroup says this must be done in order to ensure good work outcomes from training through to assessment and long-term employment.

As it stands, disabled workers still move out of work at nearly twice the rate of non-disabled peers.

Hughes adds that leaders play a crucial role here: “There must be top-down support; if senior leaders aren’t behind it, it will fail.

“Training is vital for hiring managers. Attracting the disabled talent is one thing, but how they are then supported in post will decide whether or not they thrive and therefore stay.”

This consistent support is what BT Group, which placed fourth in the latest rankings of top apprentice employers, also focuses on. The telecoms group provides educational material on disabilities so everyone in the business can help support disabled colleagues.

It is also looking to mirror the diversity of its customer base by aiming to have 17% of its workforce made up of people with
disabilities by 2030.

Flexibility is also a key part of this accessibility drive. Debbie White, chief human resources officer at BT Group adds: “The combination of our hybrid working approach and our state-of-the-art offices makes BT a great place for new joiners to learn new skills and capabilities.”


Focus on values and training provider relationship

A focus on both the employer-apprentice-training provider relationship and values play a central role in ensuring successful disability access via apprenticeships.

According to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education a clear commitment among the three parties is the key to meeting all of an apprentice’s needs.

For Charlotte Henderson, head of apprentice support at apprenticeship provider Multiverse, this should result in training providers offering one-on-one support at every stage of the apprenticeship as well as creating adjustments for disabled candidates.

She says: “This means looking at every aspect of the apprentice experience, how apprentices are recruited and the interview process; the learning experience; the community and networking opportunities, and assessments and grading.”

According to Henderson, if training providers, alongside employers, do this it means disability won’t be a barrier to accessing a good career via an apprenticeship.

Mazars’ Saville sees this holistic approach as reflective of an accessibility value set that all employers should embed, that is: universal inclusivity. He adds: “We’re trying to make inclusivity part of what it means to be at Mazars. The values [of all employers] should be, we are inclusive by nature.”

It’s this willingness to be inclusive that could help employers in the middle of a hiring and retention crisis, by giving all groups, not just disabled individuals, equal chance at successful employment.

With one in five of the working-age population classed as disabled, they are also a large pool of potential employees that businesses could engage in order to circumvent skills shortages.


This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.