Research into under-representation, by gender and ethnicity, in Apprenticeships

Report for unionlearn and the National Apprenticeship Service

Williams J, Foley B, Newton B | Report 503 | Institute for Employment Studies | Nov 2013

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While there has been a long term policy focus on addressing under-representation in apprenticeships, particularly by gender (DIUS, 2008; Miller et al., 2005), over many years, it is apparent that progress is slow.

To avoid reinforcing a high/low skill social divide and help alleviate differential pay rates, action will be required to address inequalities. There is a continued need to focus on this issue to ensure:

  • that young people are equally able to benefit from the excellent opportunities provided by apprenticeships
  • that each young person can access the best route for their needs in order to reach their full potential
  • to assist in the achievement of positive economic and social outcomes for society and help to address inequalities in the take-up of different occupations.

To fully assess where the barriers lie, the ‘pipeline’ by which people enter and progress through apprenticeships requires consideration and particularly the ‘leaks’ that lead to the loss of personnel. The term pipeline is used to refer to the process by which young people arrive at decisions about their careers and the point at which they decide whether to pursue an apprenticeship as a route to their chosen career.

It is known that stereotypes of careers form at a very young age, often in primary school (Miller and Budd, 1999; Miller and Hayward, 2006), and that careers decisions are influenced by parents and television among other things (Newton et al. 2007). By Key Stage 4, the challenge for schools and careers advisers of overturning those stereotypes may be almost insurmountable – although it is far from clear that efforts are always made to do this.

Until recently the focus in understanding equality and diversity in the apprenticeship programme has remained on gender, with less attention paid to ethnicity in apprenticeships. However, analyses conducted over the past few years have revealed that there is also significant under-representation of young people from ethnic minorities in apprenticeship pathways.

Therefore this project was designed to supply information about the decisions made by young people, both about careers in general, and about pursuing apprenticeships in particular. In addition, employer practices were examined in order to assess whether any aspects of their recruitment strategies act as barriers or whether any unconscious bias exists within the recruitment process.

Within the wider employment context, trade unions – and in particular Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) – have played a key role in engaging disadvantaged groups in learning. In recent years, the work of trade unions and ULRs has increasingly focused on supporting apprentices. This has included social support to develop the soft skills that help build young people’s confidence and employability, as well as support to develop technical skills.

Recent research suggests that the impact of apprenticeships on the ‘skill economy’ of a company can help unions negotiate favourable pay rates, including improved rates for apprentices. The Government sees unionlearn playing an increasing role in supporting apprentices and therefore it is also important to explore their role in supporting atypical apprentices.