Victoria Sylvester is a former nurse, owner of two care homes and Director of Acacia Training

New government incentives to hire apprentices could not only help to save the lost generation of young people, they will also be crucial to safeguarding the future of the care sector, says Victoria Sylvester…

Two news reports sit side by side:

  1. One, "Trade Secrets: How to reboot apprenticeships and kick-start the recovery" is about the lost generation of young people, at risk of being left behind because they can’t get a job.
  2. The other, "The size and structure of the adult social care sector and workforce in England, 2020" is about the projected growth in the number of jobs in the social care sector by 32% to 2.17 million by 2035.

While more than half a million people have lost their jobs this year, the health and social care sector has had a different experience. It has struggled with having enough staff because of constantly evolving government guidelines, increased ratios needed to achieve social distancing, and shortages due to illness, shielding or self-isolating. This is in addition to an existing skills shortage in the sector which is predicted to worsen because of immigration policy changes and an increasingly ageing population.

On paper it seems like a good fit – millions of people looking to embark on a new career or retrain after being made redundant and an industry in desperate need of skilled workers. While the sector is not for everyone, for many it can offer a hugely rewarding profession.

So why isn’t it straightforward to connect the two?

The main challenges are attracting people to the care sector and giving them training and development opportunities so they can progress and have successful careers. But changing perceptions of the sector, combined with the government’s new apprenticeship incentives, have provided a fantastic opportunity to change this for good.

Today’s apprentices are tomorrows leaders

Under the scheme, businesses will receive £2,000 for each apprentice under 25, and £1,500 for those older than 25, between August this year and February 2021.

Apprenticeships are a great way for employers to recruit the right people, grow talent and develop a skilled workforce. One of the benefits is that they can be tailored to the employer to ensure that apprentices learn the most relevant and up to date skills. Incentives are fantastic for employers so it’s very encouraging to see the government taking note of this, particularly in this challenging economic climate.

Ensuring the process is as straightforward and accessible as possible is going to be fundamental to making it work and there are still some barriers. For example, most employers need to make a 5% contribution and while this seems small, it’s still a hurdle. To truly encourage employers to take on apprentices, every single barrier should be removed, even for just a short period of time while we work through the recovery phase.

The government’s new Kickstart Scheme and funding for traineeships will also provide opportunities for young people to get into the workplace and progress on to these apprenticeships. It takes me back to the old days when we had the Future Jobs Fund, a government initiative introduced in 2009 to support unemployed young people. More than 90% of our learners who successfully completed this went on to get employment and many are now in senior positions. The key now is to have a smooth transition process by working with providers who have strong employer links, which will enable trainees to progress on to apprenticeships. Collaborative working on every level has never been more important – done right this can have a greater impact and we need to work at pace to get everything moving quickly.

Although there are some challenges, this new raft of measures is a great step in the right direction. But it will only benefit the care sector significantly if we can attract people in the first place.

Making the sector attractive

We hear it time and time again: no one wants to work in the care sector, care staff are unskilled, there’s no career progression. Finally, in one of the most difficult periods that we’ve ever faced, these misconceptions have been challenged.

Putting the tragedy aside for a moment, Covid-19 has raised the sector’s profile and demonstrated how important and valuable it is. It has brought to the forefront real stories of people on the front line, as opposed to the negative headlines we often see around the care sector. Overall, the rhetoric has been much more positive and more people are seeing it as an incredibly rewarding place to work with progression opportunities.

This has already attracted new people to the sector. UCAS has reported a 15% increase in applicant numbers for nursing year on year. The number of new nursing applicants between January and June was 63% higher than the same period last year.

At Acacia Training we continued to recruit apprentices during lockdown which shows that employers are still committed to the scheme. We delivered £100,000 of intensive training, funded by Skills for Care, to increase staffing capacity in care homes in response to Covid-19. This included induction training for new staff, volunteers and those returning to care roles. Learners ranged in age from 18 to their 60s and this just shows the level of interest in the sector and the number of new entrants.

Now we need to develop a strategy around how we can attract and retain more people, so that we can safeguard the future of the sector. Now is the perfect time to continue with the good work we’ve seen over the last few months and to build on the motivation and engagement with the sector. We need to take advantage of these promising new government incentives, keep that positivity moving and keep the sector looking attractive. Let’s not lose the ground that has been made in this short space of time.

Victoria Sylvester is a former nurse, owner of two care homes and Director of Acacia Training, which provides apprenticeships, short courses and government-funded qualifications in the health, social care, early years and beauty sectors.

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