Love it or hate it – The Apprentice and apprenticeship diversity

Image of Sandra Kerr OBE

Sandra Kerr OBE blogs on increasing diversity in apprenticeships.

I recently heard that the TV programme ‘The Apprentice’ is looking for more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) applicants. It got me thinking: with BAME unemployment still a hugely pressing issue, particularly amongst young people, how do we increase diversity in apprenticeships, not just on our TV screens but in the ‘real world’?

Whilst a quarter of applicants for apprenticeships come from BAME backgrounds, just 9 per cent successfully gain a place. This therefore strongly suggests that, although the rate of applications is roughly in line with the numbers of BAME young people in the general population, there are barriers somewhere in the recruitment process which they’re not getting through.

Once candidates are successfully recruited to apprenticeship schemes, there must be support networks in place to help them with any issues or questions they might have if they haven’t joined through a traditional route.

So what can employers do in order to boost BAME representation in their apprenticeship intake? The TUC has published a report on the challenges around attracting more BAME and female candidates to apprenticeships, which includes some excellent recommendations, but we also think that one of the keys is consistency across recruitment throughout organisations.

Earlier this week we published the first part of our Gender and Race Benchmark 2014, which highlights a number of approaches that are common amongst the organisations leading on diversity in the workplace. Whilst many employers are already applying these practices to their graduate schemes and other areas of recruitment, the apprenticeship recruitment may be handled by colleagues who are not using the same strategies.

The first step is to ensure that organisations are engaging in pre-application support and outreach for under-represented groups within their apprenticeship programmes, including young BAME people, such as through schools and colleges or at recruitment fairs. Many sectors which traditionally take on apprentices often recruit through word of mouth or family connections – consequently, if you don’t know anyone who works in these areas, they can be frustratingly difficult to break into. Reaching out to diverse candidates before they apply offers another way in that helps potential applicants understand what apprenticeships involve.

As well as outreach activities, employers may also wish to look at their recruitment processes. We found that BAME candidates continue to experience bias at each stage of the recruitment process, with representation often declining between application, shortlisting and interview stages. Organisations with similar rates of conversion between application and hiring for BAME and white candidates are more likely to monitor the diversity of applicants at each stage, which helps to identify barriers and inform how they can be addressed. Similarly, mandatory unconscious bias training for all staff involved in recruitment has been shown to improve the representation of BAME candidates throughout the hiring process.

Finally, once candidates are successfully recruited to apprenticeship schemes, there must be support networks in place to help them with any issues or questions they might have if they haven’t joined through a traditional route. Several of our member organisations offer examples of good practice in this area, such as KPMG’s Race for Opportunity Award-winning apprentice support scheme and EDF Energy, who won our Employee Network Award in 2013. National Grid are another good example, particularly for the STEM sector – their BAME Leadership Pipeline won our Developing Talent Award (Attraction) earlier this year.

You either love it or hate it, but it’s positive that ‘The Apprentice’ is seeking more BAME applicants – understanding that it needs to reflect the full diversity of the UK population - particularly after the BBC was named as one of the Top 10 leading employers for workplace diversity in our 2014 Gender and Race Benchmark. We now need more employers across all sectors to boost BAME representation in their own apprenticeship schemes by putting actions in place that we know are effective and ensuring that young BAME people who gain a place are able to succeed.