Apprenticeships: an opportunity to tackle the disability employment gap

19 May 2016

Last week the Government announced a taskforce to help more people with learning disabilities into apprenticeships. Led by Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, the taskforce will include employers, training providers, charities and educational experts.

This is a promising first step towards equal training opportunities for disabled people. Apprenticeships enable young people to learn whilst they earn, develop transferable skills and open up doors to employment. Moreover, the benefits are mutual: 96 per cent of employers that take on an apprentice report benefits to their business. These include improved productivity, reduced recruitment costs and lower staff turnover. In the long term, apprentices can be trained to meet skill shortages and develop a committed workforce.

For employers, apprenticeships can alleviate common concerns around recruiting a disabled candidate.  Whether a person is able to do a job and uncertainty around how to support a disabled person in work have been cited as key barriers to hiring. ‘Stepping stone jobs’ including apprenticeships and supported internships provide a trial period to find out whether the person is a good match for the role. It also gives the apprentice a chance to find out whether this is the sector they want to work in! The time-limit of stepping stone jobs means that, at the end of a placement, employers can decide not to offer a disabled apprentice a full time job if they are not a good match. This reduces fear of legal discrimination under the Equality Act.

It is unclear how many apprenticeships result in a full time job. However, organisations such as Marks & Spencer, offer supported internship programmes to disabled jobseekers, for which data is available. Evaluations of such programmes show that many participants go on to achieve a permanent role. Over half of the ‘Marks & Start’ participants are offered a job at the end of the programme. An employer-led approach will help to ensure that apprenticeships are high quality and that suitable jobs are available for disabled apprentices at the end of the course.

Given the contribution that apprenticeships make to the economy — data from the National Audit Office shows that every £1 spent on apprentices brings an £18 return — getting as many people into high quality training is a no brainer. For disabled jobseekers, the financial returns to the Treasury will likely be much greater. The Government has committed to halving the disability employment gap, as well as delivering three million new apprenticeships. Aligning these two objectives will help the Government to achieve both ambitious targets, as well as realising the economic and social benefits. Announcing the taskforce, Nick Boles, Skills Minister outlined his vision for greater inclusivity:

“Our commitment to apprenticeships is giving people everywhere the chance to develop vital skills while working in a real job and being paid. This taskforce will focus on how apprenticeships can be more accessible to people with learning disabilities so everyone can be part of the apprenticeships success story.”

The Minister was right to acknowledge the potential of apprenticeships. However the focus of apprenticeships must be broadened to achieve a vision where everyone has the opportunity to be “part of the apprenticeships success story”. Increasing accessibility to apprenticeships for people with learning disabilities is an important first step. Tackling the bigger challenge — of improved access for people with a range of disability types — however, will be crucial to support 1.2 million more disabled people into work by 2020. This, together with making apprenticeships accessible to older jobseekers, should be part of the taskforce’s remit. Reform will look at this in more detail as part of an upcoming report on supporting disabled people into work.

Hannah Titley, Researcher, Reform

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