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How Circle Health Group uses apprenticeships to cure talent shortages

Circle Health Group partnered with Teeside University and Liverpool John Moores University to offer 75 apprenticeships

As we enter National Apprenticeship Week, HR magazine found out how Circle Health Group uses apprenticeships to close skills gaps and talent shortages in healthcare.

Circle Health Group is one of the UK’s largest healthcare providers, with 8,200 employees and 6,500 consultants practising across its UK-wide network of hospitals.

Healthcare has the most unfilled vacancies of any sector, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s UK Report on Jobs. With these talent shortages, maintaining a large workforce in the sector is a challenge.

Jenny McKnight, director of learning at Circle Health, founded the company’s apprenticeship programme in 2017. She told HR magazine: “There is a talent crisis in healthcare, and it became obvious that we need to grow our own. Apprenticeships were the solution.”

Circle has partnered with Teesside University and Liverpool John Moores University to create apprenticeship programmes that help fill gaps in both clinical and administrative parts of the business.

McKnight says: “It was important that we understood our skills gaps and placed these apprenticeships strategically, but we are able to offer enormous variety in our programmes.”

Read more: What makes a good apprenticeship?

Circle uses apprenticeships for both recruitment and retention, with almost 300 apprentices being trained last year.

“Apprenticeships attract people. But also developing foundational knowledge and growing through apprenticeships lets them stay in the business for a long time,” McKnight says.

“We like to create a whole learning culture and philosophy, so people can have a full career of learning. They might take multiple apprenticeships with lots of gaps in between, and they’ve been earning a salary throughout.

“It gives people a real sense of belonging and engagement and, frankly, makes them better workers because they are truly embedded in the team and have the practical knowledge, while getting those academic qualifications too.”

The main challenge of running the programme is that learners have to take time away from their regular roles for placements and learning.

McKnight adds: “There’s no getting away from the fact that education and off-the-job learning has to be done but even when people are not in the role they were originally employed for, they are still providing support in their placements.

“We also encourage apprentices to mentor each other, so once someone has completed their apprenticeship they can help others complete theirs. This really helps ensure people keep connected and get an honest appraisal of how to manage and keep on top of both types of work.”

Read more: Mid-market business turns to apprenticeships

Circle Health relies on the apprenticeship levy to fund its programme.

“When the levy came in, we were very focused on using the opportunity that it presented. In December 2023, we used 120% of our levy, but most months we use around 95%. Anything we can’t use gets given to smaller healthcare businesses.”

McKnight says there are now full career pipelines at Circle to help employees continue their development. 

She says: “We have a 'door-to-director' policy. We have people who came in as porters and are now theatre managers. People can come in as housekeeping or a receptionist and they have a route from Level 2 apprenticeships to Level 7, so they can continue their progression up the business. We really try to offer people a career pathway.”