Recruiting outside the box - how apprenticeships can help access diverse talent
17 July 2019
The past few years have seen traditional notions of entry level recruitment upended in a bid to overcome challenges around accessing different pools of talent. Today, many companies have shifted focus away from requiring university degrees, but candidates still need some form of vocational training to be ready for the challenges of fulltime work. This is where apprenticeships boldly step into the ring. Given legislative changes around the apprenticeships levy however, which requires businesses with an annual pay bill of over £3m to pay 0.5% of that towards an apprenticeship tax, many companies are unsure how their levy is best spent, and if apprenticeships will provide the calibre and diversity of candidates they need.
To uncover some of the truths, and dispel some of the myths, about apprenticeships for entry level recruitment we spoke to apprenticeship training provider WhiteHat
Euan Blair and Sophie Adelman founded WhiteHat in 2016 to democratise access to the best careers. “One of the things which unites us is the shared belief in fairness and actually building something that on a fundamental level was fairer and provided opportunities for a broader range of people than the current system does” says Euan. Not only do apprenticeships offer access to a pool of talent that is highly motivated, mature and high-performing, but they also foster greater diversity in entry-level talent.
“There’s a lot of 'diversity fatigue' among companies where they were trying to improve diversity and they couldn't really shift the dial, and this was leading to a lot of frustration,” says Euan. “Apprenticeships are the perfect mechanism for actually addressing this because they open up opportunities to a broader set of people who wouldn’t get onto graduate programmes as they don’t have a degree but are equally talented and ambitious”. When we asked how this works in practice, Sophie explained that “lots of companies try and recruit experienced professionals from diverse backgrounds, but the problem is that diverse candidates often don’t get to the top of the funnel.” But employers are starting to realise they need to invest far earlier.
Euan tells us that half of WhiteHat’s apprentices have claimed free school meals, compared to 4% of graduates from Russel Group universities, 65% of their apprentices are non-white and 7% are from asylum-seeker or refugee backgrounds. While at the graduate level, many companies see success in diverse recruitment along the traditional measure of diversity, WhiteHat believe this doesn’t go far enough. “To unlock a truly diverse and inclusive workforce you need diversity of background, experiences and thought - all of which are much more difficult to measure in many ways for employers. The fact is, if you are from an ethnic minority background and you've gone to one of the best schools and you've gone to a great university, your life chances are going to be much better than someone who might be white British and went to a school that was underperforming and didn't have access to those same opportunities. So, we have to move beyond the kind of blunt instrument way of looking at diversity,” says Euan, "it’s amazing to see how few employers are actually measuring socio-economic background as well as protected characteristics, despite maybe having made great steps around gender, ethnic diversity and even sexual orientation.”
Challenging traditional recruitment methods across some of the UK’s biggest companies is not without its challenges, however. Euan and Sophie told us that one of the greatest difficulties they face is in changing perceptions around apprenticeships. Deeply ingrained notions of what makes a good candidate for an entry-level role have conditioned employers to view a degree as an imperative, leaving broad swaths of the population out of consideration for these roles. Apprenticeships offer an alternative to university which can be more attractive to school-leavers, young people with caring responsibilities, or those who cannot afford or choose not to go to university. Despite this, the numerous myths surrounding apprentices often prevent employers from considering apprenticeships programmes as a viable or good investment.
Employers buy into myths that graduates are more mature, experienced, or better prepared for the workplace than apprentices, but Euan completely disagrees. He told us that; “loads of our apprentices have been working from the age of 14 - have left school and immediately gone into full-time work because they wanted to kick-start their careers and often they come with a much higher level of maturity than graduates.” Sophie added that most graduates have minimal work experience compared to apprentices, and in fact, would not qualify specifically for a WhiteHat provided apprenticeship due to that lack of experience.
Euan also cited a general lack of awareness as a key challenge for apprenticeship providers; “we've had to be constant advocates of apprenticeships overall as well as advocates of what we do at WhiteHat. That's great because we really profoundly believe in it, but at the same time there's still a lack of awareness, particularly amongst parents and young people, about the kind of career opportunities apprenticeships offer. On the employer side, there’s really just a lack of understanding around what an apprenticeship is and what a really high quality apprenticeship programme looks like.”
How should companies debunk these myths and misreadings of apprenticeships?
Sophie and Euan say it’s all about meeting apprentices. Small pilots in companies often expand to much larger programmes as employers see immediate results, and WhiteHat’s community of apprentice hacktivists and influencers share their experiences in schools. Sophie told us, “it’s incredibly important because the pupils are usually just hearing about ‘university university university.’ For them to go and meet an apprentice and hear about their journey for the first time is incredibly powerful.”
Despite these realities, apprenticeship starts are falling short of government targets and in 2017-2018, the National Audit Office found that only 9% of available apprenticeship levy funds were accessed by eligible employers, equating to £191 million of an available pot of £2.2 billion. According to Euan, the implementation of this new system has put a number of employers off, as apprenticeships were previously fully funded by the government and companies are unwilling to pay for something they used to get for free. However, with employers paying for apprenticeships, the quality bar for apprenticeship programmes has been set much higher. WhiteHat are helping employers transition to higher quality apprenticeships and break the market open to a broader pool of non-graduate talent. WhiteHat have seen the ability for Apprentices to outperform and exceed expectations first-hand as well; “our apprentices are full time employees from day one…and about 80% of our apprentices who completed their programme have stayed on with their existing employer and 61% have received a pay rise or promotion after or during their apprenticeship as well” says Sophie.
Given everything apprenticeships offer organisations in terms of benefits and access to new, diverse pools of talent, the disheartening numbers representing the fall in uptake of apprenticeships is surprising. However, Sophie believes this needn’t necessarily be the case, with a relatively low barrier-to-entry to implement an apprenticeship programme; “you're hiring a great employee who's really loyal and is getting additional training support. You don't need to have a massive infrastructure. We work with organisations who've got twenty people to organisations of thousands of peoples, it really isn't massively difficult to roll out in practice.” In closing, Euan added that, “The key things to remember are that you get access to this incredibly diverse talent pool you might never otherwise meet or they’ll never have heard of your company, and wouldn’t enter your funnel otherwise.”