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Eradicating the opportunity deficit for black, Asian and minority ethnic young people

Jeremy Crook, Chief Executive of the Black Training & Enterprise Group (BTEG), wrote the following essay forAll Change: Where next for apprenticeships?,  an essay collection with leading experts setting out ways to improve the quality of apprenticeships and ensure fair access to training. It was published by the Learning and Work Institute:

My organisation, the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG), mainly works with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) young people helping them to make informed decisions about their futures and to understand the importance of effectively demonstrating their individuality and potential to employers.. We still meet far too many young people in school who are unaware of apprenticeships and what this route can offer. Schools provide little careers information about apprenticeships, have virtually no contact with employers and are largely focused on getting good GCSE grades and progressing their students to Sixth Form to do A-levels.

More BAME young people are choosing to stay in education for longer than white young people. We recently asked a group of young foundation degree students, mostly from BAME backgrounds, why they think that is. They told us that more academic qualifications will give them a better chance of success in the labour market. However, the reality is that BAME graduates have higher rates of unemployment than white graduates.

Apprenticeships traditionally provide a route into the labour market for young people without higher level qualifications but have not always been an option that BAME young people have been successful in accessing.

In 2016/17, just 11% of the 494,900 apprenticeship starts in England, were made by ethnic minority people. Compare that with the national population in the 2011 Census when 14.5 % of England’s population were from an ethnic minority. In that year, around one quarter of applications via the government’s Find an Apprenticeship website were from BAME individuals, but the start rate for BAME individuals was half that of white applicants. BAME people remain particularly under-represented on apprenticeships in sectors like engineering and manufacturing, where average earnings tend to be higher, and over-represented in lower earning sectors such as retail.

Recent measures the Government have put in place are welcome:

  • the target to increase the proportion of BAME apprentices by 20% by 2020;

  • the Apprenticeships Diversity Champions Network championing apprenticeships and diversity amongst employers;

  • the Five Cities Project bringing together partners in Greater Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester and London to identify ‘what works’ in improving take up of apprenticeships among under-represented groups including from BAME backgrounds;

  • the National Apprenticeship Service promoting the take-up of apprenticeships among underrepresented groups.

While these initiatives are important, and employer focused, the practical challenges will be keeping a strong focus on ethnicity, showing effective change in the workforce profiles of the companies involved and attracting new companies.

According to, the Diversity Champions Network has only around 40 members, including public sector organisations. In late 2017 Business in the Community launched its first Best Employers for Race List but struggled to list 100 companies in the UK. This shows how far we need to go to see real change. Employers appear far more willing to be proactive, and publicly willing, to sign up to national equality standards around gender and sexual orientation, but are reluctant to embrace ethnicity. Policymakers and diversity practitioners need to face up to this and engage with employers to understand why this is the case.

We consider that successive governments have failed to put enough resources into transforming the way apprenticeship providers and employers address diversity and inclusion, particularly for BAME individuals (and those with learning disabilities).

The need to convince employers to adopt and offer apprenticeships appears to have outweighed the need to make sure that providers deliver fair outcomes and that employers recruit from the whole talent pool. All too often employer-led bodies have associated equality and diversity with generating red tape that only produces extra burdens for businesses, especially for SMEs. It’s time to move away from this outdated response and encourage employers to view fair and inclusive recruitment as a necessity that brings both business and social benefits.

So, what more needs to happen to improve apprenticeship opportunities and outcomes for BAME individuals? We need larger numbers of employers to offer advanced level apprenticeships as a real alternative to the full-time university option. There are talented young people opting for degree courses that offer poor employment outcomes. These young people should be accessing quality apprenticeships that provide level 4 and 5 qualifications. This requires employers to create more high-level apprenticeships and to make sure they have an approach to recruitment that delivers for BAME individuals.

Generally, apprenticeship providers and employers focus on the shortcomings of young people, such as a lack of certain work-relevant competencies. There are certainly things the education system can do to help graduates of the system be better prepared for the world of work. But employers have a role to play too, especially around the protected characteristics included in the Equality Act 2010. We need employers to ask themselves the key question - do we reflect the ethnic make-up of the local population? Private sector employers are crucial – and we must do everything possible to get many more employers to embrace both apprenticeships and ethnic diversity.

There are some welcome signs of change: BTEG recently attended two employer networking events where ethnicity and recruitment have been the focus. One was in Birmingham – organised by Unionlearn – and focused on boosting quality and access. The other was an awards event hosted by a successful tech sector provider in London. This provider rightly has a core focus on quality, access and meeting employer needs. Impressively, just over half of the provider’s apprentices, each year, are from BAME backgrounds. It was a very positive event and it was good to see employers nominating and recognising their talented apprentices. The winners were proud to receive their trophies and prizes and all looked forward to advancing their careers in the tech sector. This was proper inclusion: representing all members of our society and recognising talent from across the board.

We hope similar events are held across the country, especially during National Apprenticeships Week. However, providers and employers need to use these kinds of celebration events to ask themselves fundamental questions about the ethnic diversity within their companies and the sectors they operate within.

We need to learn from successful initiatives and apply these across the country. The following initiatives and practical actions offer some ways forward:

Connect employers with schools and diverse young people

The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) recently commissioned a BTEG-led partnership to connect young people at school with tech and construction sector employers that are offering opportunities over the next decade in their locality. The LLDC see the value in school age young people having contact with employers and role models as early as possible. Young people are often not aware of the full range of career opportunities that they can purse in construction, tech and other sectors such as engineering.

Young people value seeing and meeting role models that come from a similar background and this makes a real difference for girls, individuals with learning difficulties and disabilities and BAME young people who may not have considered these options as being for ‘people like them’.

Targeted interventions are necessary to tackle the biggest challenges

In 2014, Trust for London, City Bridge Trust and BTEG formed a partnership called Moving on Up. This aimed to increase the employment rate for young black men in London over a two-year period to match the employment rate for young white men. Six local employment brokerage providers were awarded grants totalling £800k to help 270 young black men into work and, importantly, to help BTEG extract ‘learning’ about the process of engaging and connecting young black men with employers. One of the key learning points from the Moving on Up initiative was that engaging with employers is essential but challenging. The Moving on Up programme found that direct contact with employers helped to improve confidence and motivation, increased the young men’s social capital and sometimes led to job offers. However, getting employers to engage with the programme was a huge challenge.

Through the Moving on Up programme BTEG works closely with Jobcentre Plus. In 2017, BTEG and Jobcentre Plus tried to organise a series of breakfast meetings with small groups of local employers to discuss the initiative to get more young black men into work and explore what they could do to open opportunities and increase their young black male talent profiles. No local firm was willing to engage and one local Jobcentre Plus manager explained that their biggest challenge was convincing employers to employ young black men. Young black men make up 1 in 5 of the young male 16-24 population in London.

Improve workforce ethnic diversity and the employment of BAME young people

One senior leader in a large company spoke to BTEG about BAME recruitment and initiatives aimed at improving the representation of disadvantaged groups. It was pointed out that while the company supports a range of projects focused on BAME young people, the initiative that had had the most impact on the company was one that focused on social mobility. The respondent thought this was because people in the company at all levels had come to see the benefit of the initiative and had mainstreamed it, whereas BAME projects tend to remain marginal to the business.

For BTEG it’s no surprise in a predominately white organisation that leaders, managers and individuals at all grades seem more willing to embrace social mobility programmes. The focus on low income families and young people who are the first to attend university connects with many people who had a similar journey. Projects specifically on ethnicity might be more difficult for them to connect with as they might feel they are discriminatory.

Social mobility programmes are a mechanism for improving diversity. BTEG would like to see these programmes adopted for ethnic diversity as well as for those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Companies should be careful, however, not to overlook BAME young people from higher income backgrounds especially on graduate schemes and paid internships.

Defining new talent

The recent Open University publication, ‘The Apprenticeship Levy: one year on’ (2018), contains some interesting findings based on a survey of 750 business leaders. The research found that 54% of employers in England are using apprenticeships for training new recruits and 22% for replacing an existing graduate scheme. It said that 37% of employers have found that offering apprenticeships has helped them to attract ‘new talent’. This is encouraging but the report has not defined what is meant by ‘new talent’. BTEG believes we must define what we mean by new talent and the definition must include ethnicity, gender, learning difficulties and disabilities, and other relevant protected characteristics. This is where the National Apprenticeship Service must be bolder and work with employers to ensure that this is the standard definition of ‘new talent’.

There should be no opportunity deficit for any group of young people. Recent initiatives to improve apprenticeship participation rates for BAME young people are welcome, but more needs to be done. The Government has used legalisation to force companies to publish data on the gender pay gap and even though the data provides a limited picture, it’s a very positive step forward. We believe that employer action is key. Large companies should now adopt the Government’s data-led approach to drive change in relation to ethnicity (and for people with other protected characteristics who face similar issues). We also urge companies of all sizes to engage with or replicate for themselves the practical actions outlined in this essay.

Bola Abisogun for Moving On Up

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