A loss to employers

Disability, learning difficulties and gender are barriers to overcome in making apprenticeship schemes more representative and rewarding, writes Kim Thomas


Martin Hodson had been in and out of work several times before starting an apprenticeship with Bag Magic, a Manchester-based recycling firm. After being diagnosed with epilepsy at 19 and suffering a brain haemorrhage at 20, he found that potential employers were wary of him. Now 24, he has been working for Bag Magic for two months, while studying for an NVQ level 2 in office administration at Bury College.

“I’ve also wanted to work in IT-related office work and I thought the apprenticeship would be the best way forward. I want to be in a job where I’m going to get some skills and qualifications,” he says.

His boss, UK operations manager Gary Burton, is pleased with his progress, and has had to make only a few small adjustments to the workplace, such as ensuring that first aiders are on site and that colleagues know what to do if he suffers an epileptic episode.

Just 8 per cent of apprentices have a disability or learning difficulty compared to 18 per cent of the working-age population. As Mr Hodson found, some employers are still reluctant to take on people with a disability. Yet it’s a misguided attitude, says Mr Burton: “Martin would do more than what we ask of him. He wants to feel he’s been given an opportunity and doesn’t want to let us down.”

Businesses are missing out on a huge pool of talented, hard-working people

Those with disabilities and learning difficulties are not the only under-represented group. Apprenticeships in some fields are overwhelmingly dominated by men: in construction, women only make up 1 per cent of apprentices, and in engineering, only 3 per cent. In other fields, the reverse applies: men make up only 6 per cent of childcare apprentices, and 17 per cent of health and social care apprentices.

As a result, businesses are missing out on a huge pool of talented, hard-working people. Addressing that imbalance isn’t easy, but the key seems to be to take a multi-pronged approach.

Helena Partnerships, a not-for-profit social landlord, holds drop-in recruitment events to attract disadvantaged groups, such as those not in education, employment or training (NEETs), into apprenticeships. Families with dependents are notified by text of the events, which are held in the target community, and are designed to be informal and welcoming. Each year, at least one sponsored apprenticeship is ring-fenced for a student with learning difficulties or behavioural problems.

The company’s construction division, Helena Propertycare, has a Women in Construction programme, offering work placements to students from local schools and sending female apprentices to talk to school students. Successful women, such as Cassi Pickavance, a 21-year-old apprentice plumber who recently won an Apprentice of the Year award, feature as role models in publicity material.

Zodiac Training, a training provider based in the North East of England, shows what can be achieved through effort. The company has been running a pilot scheme, co-funded by the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and the Skills Funding Agency, to attract more men into the care sector. Its approach, which included holding open events and providing induction training to potential apprentices, at no cost to the prospective employer, resulted in 169 men being placed in apprenticeships in local care homes over the 14-month period of the pilot.

They have been a hit with employers. David Wilkinson, a training and human resources manager at Carewatch, a care home provider working with Zodiac, says that male residents often prefer to be cared for by other men, particularly for tasks such as bathing.

Caroline Rhodes also found her niche in a non-traditional profession. After 13 years in local government, she took voluntary redundancy and retrained as a heating engineer with Sure Group’s Halton Housing Trust. Within five months, she had attained her Accredited Certification Scheme (ACS) qualification, which allows her to work with gas on her own.

Her experience shows that increasing diversity shouldn’t be about ticking boxes or meeting quotas, but about casting the net a little wider when looking for the best person for the job. As she puts it, “I don’t want to be a girl put on a pedestal because it looks good for equal opportunities, I want to be a good engineer.”

GENDER

One of only two women nuclear engineers

Amy Edmundson, 18, joined EDF Energy last September as an apprentice nuclear engineer. She is spending the first two years of her apprenticeship at the Royal Naval base at HMS Sultan near Portsmouth, before transferring to Hinkley Point C nuclear power station for her final two years.

Of the 65 apprentices in her year, Amy is one of only two women, a situation she initially found “quite daunting”. That soon wore off, however. “You realise after the first day that they’re not going to treat you any differently – you all just get along,” she says.

Having completed four academic A Levels, she is relishing the chance to acquire more practical skills. “We do an awful lot of hands-on work. We do bench fitting – we have to make a claw clamp out of metal. At the moment, we’re doing machining, where we make a plumb line.”

At the end of the course, equipped with an Advanced Modern Apprenticeship Certificate of Engineering, Amy plans to stay at EDF Energy as a maintenance technician and work her way up. She encourages other young women to follow her example. “One reason women aren’t attracted to engineering is because they’ve never done it before – you’re not going to know whether you’ll enjoy it until you try it,” she says.