New government incentives to recruit apprentices into the social care sector are the equivalent of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted 

The UK's social care sector employs some 1.1million people. Despite its sizeable workforce, Coronavirus has exposed the reality of the acute skills crisis it faces. New guidelines, increased staffing ratios to adhere to social distancing requirements, increased absence due to ill-health and self-isolation have pushed the sector to breaking point.

The skills-shortage affecting the industry shouldn't come as a surprise to policymakers. Research by the King's Fund prior to the pandemic laid bare the scale of the challenge it faces. It estimated there were 122,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) vacancies. For every ten jobs in the social care sector one is unfilled. Compare this to the three per cent vacancy rate pre-COVID for the economy as a whole. What's more, the UK's ageing population coupled with anticipated reductions in immigration post-Brexit means the situation is forecast to get worse not better. Skills for Care estimate that by 2035 there will be the need for an additional 2.17 million jobs across the health and social care sectors as a whole – a one third increase.

Coronavirus, the media spotlight on the high fatality rate in care homes, and the anticipated record levels of youth unemployment have finally prompted the Government into action. It has launched a major new apprenticeship drive to increase the number of apprentices across all sectors, including health and social care.

Under the new funding rules, from August 2020 and February 2021 businesses will receive £2,000 for each apprentice under 25 and £1,500 for those older than 25. The new rules come together with the Government's new Kickstart Scheme and additional funding for traineeships which provide young people without the requisite knowledge the skillset criteria they need to begin their formal apprenticeship training.

The additional funding is welcome and will likely lead to an increase in the number of young people pursuing a career in this vital sector, but the harder problem to solve is the lack of desirability it caried in the eyes of many young people. While successive governments have poured resources into promoting the appeal of modern apprenticeships to young people, their parents and teachers, much of the resource has been channelled into pursuing more 'fashionable' courses, such as creative and digital media, marketing, and IT.

The government's failure to promote the role the social care sector plays means that to many young people the industry lacks appeal. It lacks glamour. This makes it harder for the sector to fill vacancies. One unfortunate factor in the industry's favour is that the scarcity of jobs over the coming months as the economic crisis beds in means many young people may not have the luxury of choice.

As the controversial historian David Starkey noted earlier this year, care homes and social care in general lack the emotional significance in the hearts of the British people compared to the NHS. As a result, it has often played second fiddle to its preferred sibling. Coronavirus has shown us that the status quo is no longer acceptable. The government needs to put the industry front and centre to educate and inform the public about the valuable role the sector and its staff play and their growing importance in the months and years to come.

Lawrence Barton, Managing Director of GB Training

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