Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited

#NationalInclusionWeek - Bridging the Employment Gap

At the heart of creating a diverse skilled workforce is having a skills system that supports everybody to thrive and develop no matter what background they come from or which barriers they may face.

Apprenticeships should be the perfect pathway for people with disabilities to access work and develop skills.

Worryingly, however, official statistics would suggest that there remains a gap in employment between those with declared disabilities and those without. DfE statistics show that in 2018/19, 12.3% of individuals starting an apprenticeship in England declared a Learning Difficulty or Disability (LDD).

Although the proportion has increased slightly each year from 7.7% in 2011/12, this still only represents just over half of the total proportion of people with disabilities in the UK – almost one in five (19.5%) of the working age population.

To understand why this is the case and what more can be done to close this gap, I was fortunate enough to be able to work with The Open University to undertake a comprehensive piece of research with employers in England and feed into the Access to Apprenticeships report.

The report looks at just how effectively our current skills system supports employers to recruit and develop people with physical impairments, mental health conditions and learning difficulties and what employers would like to see done to improve the system.

Employers hiring more apprentices with a declared disability

Encouragingly, the survey showed a strong desire to increase apprenticeship recruitment across both public and private sector employers and a focus on hiring more apprentices with a declared disability.

In particular, over one in three employers told us they had started to proactively recruit individuals with a disability over the past three years.

The employers we talked to did, however, highlight some significant barriers to meeting their ambitions including a lack of knowledge around the support available to them and insufficient financial and human resources to provide any extra support needed to recruit and develop individuals with a disability.

This is particularly the case with SMEs. Many employers rely on training providers to navigate the various sources of funding available but often these providers are themselves unclear on the eligibility criteria.

The latter barrier was highlighted in the Department of Education’s own report "Barriers to learning for disadvantaged adults" that it commissioned via the Learning and Work Institute in 2018 which stated that: “Most providers interviewed do not claim Additional Learning Support for these apprentices as they are unsure of the eligibility criteria and/or find it challenging to evidence the specific impact that mental health issues have on learning”. Little appears to have been done to date to fix this issue.

Simplifying eligibility criteria for additional funding support 

I would therefore urge the Department to see how can it simplify the eligibility criteria for additional funding support and do more to positively encourage providers to draw upon it?

Shouldn’t every apprentice have a thorough assessment of their needs from the very outset and any additional support put in place quickly and easily?

The OU recommends that the Department of Education looks at how funding and funding criteria can be simplified and floats the idea of a ‘top-up allowance’ – drawn from the existing Additional Learning Support funding – to cover assessment and put in place any adjustments that will support learning throughout the apprenticeship.

The readiness of leaders and operational teams to support apprentices with disabilities was also cited as a barrier with many employers feeling that their staff were ill-equipped and not sufficiently trained to support individual needs.

They would welcome additional support to train and educate their teams with training providers being seen as the preferred source of this support. Making high quality information advice and guidance available to employers and providers could, and should, be another very quick win for the Department. There is no shortage of information and guidance out there but it remains fiendishly difficult to track down.

Overall I am heartened by what I heard from employers in England as there is no doubt the will is there from employers large and small to diversify their workforces and unlock potential but barriers still remain if we are to bridge the employment gap.

Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited

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