The government is “urgently” investigating its “over-censorious” apprenticeship website that rejects vacancies for including words such as “stripper”, “man” and “head”.
Sector insiders told FE Week that the “bizarre” algorithm was hindering firms that want to post vacancies online.
The development comes as education chiefs are desperately trying to boost apprenticeship starts in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The “recruit an apprentice” gov.uk website allows providers and employers to post and manage apprenticeship vacancies, with candidates able to apply on the “find an apprenticeship” page.
However Jenny Bicknell, director of education solutions at GetMyFirstJob, said that her firm had hosted roundtable sessions on the “recruit an apprentice system” during which employers revealed their vacancies were being rejected for innocuous words.
She raised the issue on social media and soon generated a flurry of responses.
Among some of the rejections was a post on the Isle of Man for use of the word “man”, a head chef role being blocked for the word “head” and the word “drive” halting another vacancy.
“Stripper” stopped a vehicle stripper apprenticeship from being advertised, while “run”, “family” and “children” were other examples flagged to Bicknell.
Those attempting to post vacancies have reported having to change words on their posts to get them on the portal. Some vacancies FE Week found on the site did include some of the flagged words, such as “head” and “children” but it is not clear how they circumvented the red flag.
Government guidance for creating an apprenticeship vacancy states that officials will check the vacancy and let employers and providers know if any edits are needed within 24 hours, but there is no reference to potential rejections for use of certain words.
There was however a new funding rule introduced this year to “improve usage”, after the Education and Skills Funding Agency found that about a quarter of active providers were not using the site, which “causes issues for candidates looking for central repository of all opportunities”.
The rule states that while it is not mandatory for employers to use recruit an apprentice, it is a “condition of funding for all main providers to offer this service where applicable”.
And where an employer has declined the use of recruit an apprentice, providers “must record the reason for this”.
Bicknell suspects that the government has introduced changes to “recruit an apprentice” that is causing the issue.
She told FE Week: “The recent changes to recruit an apprentice have majorly affected our customers’ apprenticeship recruitment. The bizarre rejection reasons slow fill time and dampen the service they are offering to their employers as well as pushing more admin resource onto the recruiters.”
She added that “words such as ‘run’, ‘family’, ‘children’ and ‘drive’ are fundamental to our customers’ opportunities and the employers they work with”.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said it was “another silly example of computer says no”.
“Of course, there’s a place for artificial intelligence but we need to remember that these online bots are ultimately programmed by humans. It’s disturbing to read that some over-censorious zealots may have been at it again, determined it would seem, to find offence in everyday common words and usage,” he added.
Bewick said the algorithm needed a sensible override function.
A spokesperson from the DfE said: “The team are aware of the issue and looking into it urgently.”