A new centre for excellence is redefining how to tackle skills shortages

Regional partnerships between FE and HE like this could deliver much-needed momentum in addressing workforce gaps

Regional partnerships between FE and HE like this could deliver much-needed momentum in addressing workforce gaps

30 Jan 2024, 5:00

The challenges facing the NHS in addressing increasingly concerning staff shortages nationally are well known and laid out starkly in last year’s NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.

At the time of its publication in June, it highlighted 112,000 local vacancies. Increasing need from an aging population and exhausted professionals leaving for jobs with better pay or fewer demands are among the reasons the problem has grown.

The report also issued stark warnings of a staff shortfall of between 260,000 and 360,000 by 2036/37 if measures aren’t made to bolster workforce numbers in critical areas.

The plan identified increased education and training to “record levels” and ambitions for upscaling apprenticeships among the key drivers in tackling the problem.

The pilot of new medical degree apprenticeships stole the headlines when the plan was first published, but it is far more than just doctors our NHS needs; nurses, radiographers, care workers and mental health professionals are just some of those also in high demand.

But simply creating more apprenticeships isn’t enough. Health careers are highly rewarding, but we already know that learners need to be inspired and driven to pursue careers in such highly-demanding and, at times, poorly-paid jobs.

It is why a local response is needed to help address national shortages, and a brand new partnership across East Anglia plans to deliver on this.

The East of England Centre of Excellence for Health Apprenticeships (CEHA) will see three further education providers (The College of West Anglia, East Coast College and Suffolk New College), two integrated care systems (Norfolk and Waveney, and Suffolk and North East Essex) and the University of Suffolk team up to boost apprenticeship provision.

It is a model we believe will be critical to the NHS

By working together, health and education leaders across the region will identify the current shortfall in provision and expand the portfolio of apprenticeships the providers will offer to fill those vital needs. That will include working with more employers to deliver those places.

For instance, the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan’s modelling indicates that by 2031/32 around 28 per cent of nurses could train through a degree apprenticeship route, including 42 per cent of learning disability nurses and 30 per cent of adult and mental health nurses. Currently, just 9 per cent of nurses qualify this way.

Even more crucially, this partnership will provide progression opportunities for learners as they work their way up the skills ladder. For example, a learner could start out with Level 1 to 3 health and social care qualifications in an FE college, advance to a level 4 or 5 nursing associate programme, and continue to Level 6 and 7 degree apprenticeships at university.

Creating clear progression paths will help learners plan their own journeys much more efficiently, and empower them to remain in their career.

The first new apprenticeships will come on stream in the next 18 months to two years, and the beauty of the model is that more regional partners – be it FE, HE or NHS organisations – can join where needed.

The benefits are clear. Learners taking their first foray into the health or social care sectors can see their progression opportunities better than ever before; The Integrated Care Systems will have a one-stop-shop to recruit and upskill their workforces; and the region’s rural landscape – which can sometimes make it tricky for learners to access opportunities – becomes less of a barrier.

Significantly, links with NHS employers have already been established too.

The partnership is in its infancy, but it is a model we believe will be critical to helping fill the NHS workforce gaps in our area, and development of similar models elsewhere across the country could easily pay dividends nationally.

And if this model works in the health and social care sector, then who is to say it couldn’t be adopted in other areas of common skills shortages, such as construction or engineering?

Identifying the problem is one part of the solution, but real on-the-ground commitment from providers and employers will be the way to drive long-term change. Partnerships that unite all stakeholders towards the same goal will go a long way towards helping drive this much-needed change.

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