Demand for apprenticeships is high and gaining a position is frequently a highly competitive process. The policy to raise the participation age in education or training, which guarantees apprenticeships to all capable young people who want one, is likely to increase interest among young people. Among employers (the supply-side) the number involved has increased significantly, although growth among small-to-medium sized employers (SMEs) is slower than among larger employers. To support SMEs to get involved the Government has introduced a grant to help cover the costs of an apprentice in the early phase of training.
While overall the picture for apprenticeships is rosy, with increases in participation and a renewed focus on quality heralded by the Richard Review (an independent report on the future of apprenticeships by entrepreneur Doug Richards, published in November 2012). The data showed that take-up is uneven. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups are under-represented and there is considerable gender segregation in vocational sectors. While age diversity in apprenticeships has notably increased, gender and race diversity in the programme shows little change
To address this under-representation, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) funded some projects (known as the Diversity in Apprenticeship Pilots) to examine barriers to apprenticeships and trial solutions to these. These pilots show that there is no 'silver bullet' to deal with under-representation, rather it is a combination of approaches that leads to success.
One key finding was that the apprenticeship message was simply not reaching many BAME young people. Information, advice and guidance about apprenticeships pre-16 can be patchy, but seems to be a particular challenge with BAME groups. This is exacerbated by a lack of experience of apprenticeships among parents in BAME communities. Using BAME media channels was a useful way of raising awareness, but only alongside access to detailed information.
In gender-stereotyped occupational areas, such as science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM), out-dated views of the sectors acted as a barrier. The image of STEM occupations as 'get your hands dirty' jobs is pervasive: teachers, parents and young people do not understand that 'high tech' and 'new tech' jobs are the polar opposite of this. It is crucial to get this message to young people, parents, teachers and careers advisors to have an impact.
BAME employers may lack knowledge of the apprenticeship programme. Reaching out to BAME employers and SMEs is therefore a critical component of widening access, but not simple to achieve. Working through the right intermediaries (such as community leaders) can be effective.
Employers are often not aware that their recruitment processes might deter gender-atypical applicants, and have not considered how a non-traditional apprentice might feel in their workplace. Exploring the ways in which their recruitment process could be improved, making the workplace more welcoming and providing gender or race congruent mentors from among existing employees could help, but more important is ensuring atypical apprentices have sympathetic managers/supervisors.
To encourage employers to consider more diverse applicants, the pilots established that financial incentives (such as the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers, ESF and/or local authority provided grants) could be leveraged for equality and diversity objectives. For maximum effect, these incentives should be packaged with support to young people and employers.
Continued and consistent effort
Increasing equality and diversity in apprenticeships should be viewed as a critical success factor for the programme. Raising the esteem with which this vocational training route is held within all sectors of the community will ensure its widest reach and that all can benefit from high quality training.
Under-representation has been a longstanding challenge that still eludes attention.
To effect a change, we need concerted, joined-up action by policymakers, education and training providers, guidance providers, employer organisations and employers to ensure that all young people can access the best route in order to reach their full potential, and that employers can access the best talent to meet their business' needs.
Becci Newton (pictured) is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).