Only diverse, flexible and highly skilled workforces will help businesses to overcome economic and political challenges, says Laura Burley. While there are encouraging signs, there is work to be done to realise our potential for a fully inclusive labour market

Our Access to Apprenticeships report published today explores access to, and availability of, apprenticeships for people with declared disabilities in England. It is based on the results of a survey of over 700 large and small employers across the country.

Employers have started to change their approaches to solving skills shortages and preparing themselves for the future. More than half are increasing investment in training and a third now employ apprentices, according to our recent UK-wide skills study, The Open University Business Barometer.

They have also recognised that building diverse workforces is a powerful way to unlock creativity and fresh thinking. At the heart of creating a diverse, skilled workforce is having an apprenticeship system that supports everybody’s potential to thrive and develop no matter what background they come from or what barriers they face.

This growing consensus about the value of inclusion is reflected by the government, which set a goal of increasing the proportion of apprentices in England with a declared disability by 20 per cent by next year.

To support this goal, the Department for Education has created the Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network (ADCN) to promote best practice in diversity recruitment among employers and encourage them to target under-represented groups. Yet a recent NAO report said that targets for widening participation among under-represented groups lacked ambition.

Department statistics show that in 2018-19, 12.3 per cent 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 per cent in 2011-12, this only represents just over half of the total proportion of people with disabilities in the UK – almost one in five (19.5 per cent) of the working age population. So, while progress has been made in supporting people with an LDD into work and long-term meaningful careers, a lot more can be done.

In some key respects, our report makes for encouraging reading. Over two thirds of employers said that hiring apprentices or graduates with a disability was a priority for them, and over a third had started to recruit individuals with a disability proactively over the past three years.

Many employers reported challenges in knowing where to turn for information and advice

However, many employers reported challenges in knowing where to turn for information and advice, how to seek additional funding or resources required, or indeed securing the internal resource needed to support apprentices with declared disabilities. The report also found an increase in apprentices reporting mental health conditions.

With this in mind, the report makes four key recommendations to the government about apprenticeships in England, to provide employers with better opportunities to diversify and strengthen their workforce:

1. Enhance recruitment support.

2. Provide more transparent information, advice and guidance.

3. Simplify the funding and clarify the eligibility and assessment processes.

4. Improve education and training for employers.

The Open University’s mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. It means we want to be at the forefront of providing support to apprentices from all backgrounds, and we hope this report sparks further debate between the government, training providers, employers and charities.

But there is no need to wait for the government to act. Communication across the sector’s agencies is key to better supporting apprentices with declared disabilities and action is possible now. Our report sheds an important light on where that action might be directed.