Apprenticeships diversity still lags and now is the time to act

National Apprenticeships Week and Race Equality Week happen at the same time – a coincidence that should speak volumes to policy makers, writes Payal Bhavsar

National Apprenticeships Week and Race Equality Week happen at the same time – a coincidence that should speak volumes to policy makers, writes Payal Bhavsar

14 Feb 2023, 5:00

The latest data from the Department of Education on apprenticeship starts  show that Asian, Black and mixed heritage people are still significantly underrepresented in apprenticeships.

Together, these groups account for only 13.6 per cent of all apprenticeships starts though they make up 16.8 per cent of the population according to the 2021 census (not including Arab and Gypsy/Traveller communities, who also experience significant racism). The disparity is greatest for Asian people, who make up 6.4 per cent of apprenticeship starts, 3 percentage points lower than their representation in the general population (9.6 per cent).

While there has been an overwhelming drop in apprenticeship starts as a whole – a whopping 69 per cent fall between 2015/16 and 2021/22 – it is disappointing to see that so little progress has been made to improve apprenticeships uptake by ethnic minority groups.

Barriers to apprenticeships

Ethnic minority young people are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their white peers. They are under-represented in higher paying sectors and over-represented in sectors with lower pay.

According to the Youth Futures Foundation’s 2022 survey of 2,296 ethnic minority young people, 44 per cent of young Asian people and 57 per cent of young Black people see their ethnicity as a barrier to career success. Seven in 10 have experienced some form of workplace discrimination, 2 in 5 have experienced discrimination when applying for a job or at interview, and more than half (55 per cent) of young Black people feel that employers underestimate their abilities because of their ethnic background.

Back in 2021, Lewis Hamilton’s commission found that out of 60,000 apprenticeship starts in engineering across all skill levels, just 2 per cent (1,120) were taken up by Black students and 3 per cent (1,980) by Asian students. Overall ethnic minority representation totalled a meagre 9 per cent, which compares very poorly with the school population, where some 34 per cent of students are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Our own findings chime with the commission’s conclusions. In 2021, we found that low participation of ethnic minority young people in apprenticeships was not due to lack of interest but knowledge about career opportunities. We also found that London had the largest population of ethnic minority young people and the lowest number of apprenticeship places per capita. Meanwhile, young people told us they were not aware of where to find information about apprenticeships and were not engaged by government awareness campaigns or agencies.

Time for change

Many initiatives are trying to address some of these barriers to apprenticeships. For example, Action for Race Equality has been working with a range of top employers to hire more young Black men in construction, finance and tech roles, including apprenticeships.

Now, we are calling on the Department for Education to do more. We need ministers to work proactively with employers in the construction, digital and engineering sectors to improve the recruitment and retention of ethnic minority young people into apprenticeships, and support them in their routes to employment.

When this is done well, we know it makes a significant difference.

WTW, Thames Water and HS2 are examples of leading firms who form part of a network of Employer Champions. They are working closely with two employment initiatives, our own Moving on Up and the Mayor of London’s Workforce Integration Network to tackle the lower employment rates for Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people in London.

We now need more employers in multicultural cities across the country to take action to address ethnic disparities and set higher ethnicity targets to make apprenticeships reflect their communities. We believe these should be between 40 and  55 per cent of the apprentices recruited.

The government will be publishing new Positive Action guidance for employers later this year, but they must explore ways of incentivising employers, including how the levy could be used to promote positive action for under-represented groups.

This year, National Apprenticeship Week coincides with Race Equality Week. Amid a volatile economic climate, this is a crucial moment for policy makers and employers to address ethnic disparities in apprenticeships so that everyone can benefit from all they have to offer.

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