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How firms can use apprenticeships to boost diversity

The UK has a documented problem with a lack of diversity at the highest levels of business. Apprenticeships could be a crucial way to tackle this problem, but they must be implemented in the right way
Apprenticeships And Diversity

We have a diversity problem at the top of UK society and across UK companies. According to the Colour of Power report, just 52 of the 1,099 most powerful roles in the UK are filled by non-white individuals. That is 4.7% of the total, well below the UK population as a whole, where 13% are non-white. 

A Fawcett Society report found that across different areas of society, men still outnumber women in positions of power by a ratio of two to one, with ethnic minority women facing even greater levels of under-representation. Meanwhile, research that examined the 2020 annual reports of FTSE 100 companies found not a single one had an executive or a senior manager who had disclosed they had a disability (although some did say they prefer not to say or otherwise chose not to disclose).

The consequences of this lack of diversity at the top are threefold. First, staff do not see themselves represented at senior levels and, as a result, do not aspire to those roles. As the saying goes: ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it’. 

Second, these organisations are unlikely to represent their current or future customers and so may miss the mark when appealing to them. Recently, we’ve seen many examples in the media of organisations being ‘cancelled’ because of their lack of diversity in rooms where decisions on ad campaigns are run. 

Third, there is a lack of creativity, innovation and agility that results in weaker performance. Research by Mckinsey has found that organisations which perform best in terms of ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns that outpace their industry. 

How bias can get in the way of diverse hiring

Given the consequences, tackling the diversity issue should be a business imperative. Yet we see uptake of one of the key ways to address the problem - apprenticeships - languishing. Data from the government shows the number of people taking up apprenticeships is actually falling, from a high of 908,700 in the academic year 2016/17 to 740,400 in 2021/22.

Apprentices can bring much-needed diversity into the pipeline of an organisation; talent that can be nurtured and promoted through the ranks. Business can benefit from an intergenerational perspective and diversity of thought, as well as other characteristics and talents that an apprentice will bring. 

However, apprentices are not by default more diverse. Data from the department for education shows 88.2% of people on apprenticeships are white, with just 5% Asian, 3.5% Black and 2.5% of mixed ethnicity. The question to business leaders is: are you challenging your company to recruit a diverse group of apprentices?

Organisational norms are reinforced in recruitment. A company may believe that the best candidate got the role, but the process, language and interactions can advantage a particular candidate? Check the biases. 

One such bias is accent. Research by Queen Mary University found that Birmingham accents and those from the Caribbean were deemed less intelligent sounding than other accents. This can get in the way of candidates being heard and taken seriously. Recognise that your bias may mean that you privilege certain accents above others when interviewing. 

Another is confirmation bias. Some 60% of interviewers will make a decision about a candidate’s suitability within 15 minutes of meeting them. When you hear yourself saying, ‘I don’t think that they are the right fit’, challenge what that really means and question whether actually it’s those differences that make them the right fit.

How to create an environment where diverse apprentices can flourish

A second question to ask is: is the company creating an environment where apprentices can thrive?

I see it time and time again. Bright, new starters from diverse backgrounds join an organisation but then meet a broken rung on the career ladder that stops them from moving on at the same rate as their colleagues in the majority group.

To retain apprentices from diverse backgrounds, take an individual approach to managing them

To retain apprentices from diverse backgrounds, take an individual approach to managing them and understanding their needs. Value their difference and what’s important to them. Let them feel seen, heard and appreciated, without having to fit into a mould that isn’t aligned with who they are.

One manager I know, a Christian, fasted with his colleague for a day during Ramadan to gain a better understanding of his experience and faith. By doing so, he showed an interest, developed empathy and was able to amend any policies, systems or processes that may have hindered his colleague from feeling he could practise his faith.

It’s also important to be an ally. An apprentice from a minority background may be visible for their mistakes and not for the good work they do. They can be marginalised, their comments ignored or not taken seriously, and not invited out to social events with their colleagues. 

As an ally, you can step in to support them by amplifying their comments and backing them up so they are heard. A simple way to do this is by saying things like, ‘I think X made a great point, shall we explore that a little more?’. Another is by ‘calling in’ behaviour that inadvertently or purposefully excludes, for example by questioning why someone might not be the right fit for an opportunity. 

Done with care, thought and openness to change, recruiting apprentices can be a great addition to your overall strategy of creating equitable outcomes for all and a more inclusive organisation.

Jenny Garrett is an executive coach, leadership trainer and diversity, equity and inclusion expert. Her latest book, Equality vs Equity, tackles issues of race in the workplace.


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