During my time at Barclays, I was exceptionally proud of the effort we made as an organisation to create an inclusive workforce where everyone from every background could feel welcomed and play a part in building one of the world’s leading banks.
This was important to Barclays because they recognised that a diverse skilled workforce would bring huge benefits in terms of innovation and new ways of thinking about how to meet clients’ needs.
We recognised that apprenticeships should be the perfect pathway to attract new recruits from different backgrounds and in particular people with disabilities. This was probably one of the most challenging aspects of our early careers recruitment. We found it hard to attract candidates and ensure that we made the necessary adjustments to our recruitment processes. Once hired we had to look at how we put in place the required support and adjustments to ensure success in the workplace.
“We recognised that apprenticeships should be the perfect pathway to attract new recruits from different backgrounds and in particular people with disabilities.”
We also developed supported internships for people with a range of disabilities and forged great relationships with a wide range of third sector organisations who were able to provide invaluable advice. Our own HR team were also excellent at ensuring all the required reasonable adjustments were put in place and helped navigate what funding was available from Government.
It is not, however, hard to see why many less resourced businesses might shy away from targeting this talent pool when their resources and expertise are often limited. It is a complex area where a lot of support is required and often the landscape is tricky to navigate.
This might be one factor behind why, somewhat worryingly, 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 survey 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.
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.
“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 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.
I would therefore urge the Department to see how it can 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.
By Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited; former Head of Early Careers at Barclays. Mike recently worked with The Open University to undertake a comprehensive survey with employers in England to feed into the Access to Apprenticeships report.