Can apprenticeships help increase diversity and address an ageing workforce?

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Sue Husband explains how apprenticeships can help employers combat key recruitment challenges

Apprenticeships are a key part of creating a stronger and fairer economy where people of all ages and backgrounds can fulfil their potential. They provide the route employers need to improve their skills base, boost productivity and grow their business. And apprenticeships can help employers address a range of key recruitment challenges, including diversifying the staff base and overcoming the key hurdles associated with an ageing workforce.

More opportunities for young people

There are now more high-quality apprenticeships than ever before to help people of all ages and backgrounds progress in work and life. Whether someone is looking to gain their first job, improve their skills or even change career, apprenticeships are a great option to help people succeed. There are now more opportunities than ever for young people to start a high-quality apprenticeship, across a range of industries.

Through apprenticeships, we’re making it easier for employers to attract a diverse range of young people, helping them to acquire top talent and tackle skills shortages associated with an ageing workforce. There are now more opportunities than ever for talented, hardworking and ambitious young people to start an apprenticeship in their chosen career. Higher and degree apprenticeships in particular mean businesses can train more employees in critical high-level skills, while offering ambitious individuals the chance to learn at university, to degree level.

There has never been a better time to take on an apprentice, with reforms to apprenticeships firmly focused on improving quality in the system and giving employers the skills they need. Employers have control of apprenticeship funding and can develop their own talent – whether that’s recruiting new people or retraining and upskilling existing staff.

Championing diversity

Apprenticeships help communities by creating a stronger and fairer economy where lives are transformed and people can fulfil their potential. We are ensuring apprenticeships are as accessible as possible, encouraging take up from under-represented groups so that even more people can benefit from the increased wage and employment prospects that apprenticeships offer.

We’re seeing encouraging progress: 11 per cent of apprenticeship starts in 2016-17 were people with a BAME background – the highest reported over the past seven years. Starts by apprentices who declared a disability and/or learning difficulty also increased in 2016-17 from the previous year, while women accounted for more than half of apprenticeship starts in 2016-17 (53 per cent).

There are fantastic examples of employers using apprenticeships to combat workforce challenges around ageing and diversity, including Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service (BFRS).

Since 2010, like many public sector organisations, BFRS has been facing significant recruitment issues, being unable to increase its workforce or take on new staff on a regular basis because of budget restraints. For BFRS the effects were felt most keenly among its 400-plus firefighters, where the average age of its operational workforce was only increasing. in June 2016, BFRS began to use apprenticeships as a way to restart the growth of its operational workforce and inject a regular intake of new, younger talent into the organisation – starting the implementation of a plan to take on 10 new apprentice firefighters a year on a four-year programme.

Although it’s still early days since offering apprenticeships, BFRS has already started to see a drop in the average age of its operational employees, with the average age in 2014-15 being 40.3, falling to 38.5 in 2016-7. Station commander Charlie Turner, HR project manager, explains: “Apprenticeships have allowed us to offer new valuable opportunities to enter our workforce after a long period of time with no substantial recruitment. We knew we had to adapt our resourcing models and find different ways of working and apprenticeships were the option we needed.

“Although offering firefighting apprenticeships is relatively new to us, we’re already starting to see the impact of introducing younger people to our operational teams and, as we continue taking on apprentices, we hope to reap even more of the benefits.”

The introduction of a more structured apprenticeship programme has also assisted BFRS in increasing the diversity of its workforce. Turner says: “Traditionally we have struggled with recruiting staff with a diverse range of backgrounds. However, we are keen to represent the communities we serve. Apprenticeships have given us a greater opportunity to go into the community and reach out to more women and more people with BAME backgrounds, and raise their awareness of apprenticeships and encourage them to take them up.

The organisation is already beginning to see a positive effect on the diversity of its workforce through apprenticeships, particularly among its operational staff. It doubled the number of women in operational employee roles, from 3 per cent in 2014-15 to 6 per cent in 2016-17, while the number of operational staff with BAME backgrounds has also doubled in the same time period, from 1 per cent in 2014-15 to 2 per cent in 2016-17.

Sue Husband is director of the National Apprenticeship Service

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