Employers need to reserve places on apprenticeship schemes for young women, disabled people and ethnic minorities to create a more level playing field, the country’s equality body has said.
The government has pledged to create 3 million apprenticeships in England by next year. But almost 90% of apprentices aged 16-24 are white, compared with 82% of the population.
While there are similar numbers of female and male apprentices, women remain significantly under-represented in the better-paid industries. And the number of people starting an apprenticeship last year who had learning difficulties, disabilities or health problems dropped by 17% on the previous year.
With National Apprenticeship Week starting on Monday, the Equality and Human Rights Commission says firms need to take steps to get more people from minority groups into trainee schemes, favouring them against other similarly qualified candidates if necessary.
Few employers are making use of powers given to them under the 2010 Equality Act to tackle disadvantage and under-representation experienced by certain groups, according to a report by the commission, the University of Chester and the Young Women’s Trust. “Women continue to be shut out of key parts of the economy due to outdated gender stereotypes and a lack of support,” said Dr Carole Easton, the trust’s chief.
“We need a level playing field in the workplace for women, disabled people and ethnic minorities,” said Rebecca Hilsenrath, the commission’s chief executive. “If we can do this at the point of entry to the labour market, we will take giant steps towards closing pay gaps and eliminate the outdated idea that certain kinds of people ought to be doing certain kinds of jobs.”
In England, women made up only 5% of people starting apprenticeship in construction, planning and the built environment. In contrast, women were over-represented in apprenticeships in poorly paid sectors, such as hairdressing and early-years care. They made up 94% of all apprenticeship starts in child development and wellbeing in England last year.
But the commission warns that too many companies “are hesitant about using positive action because they’re worried about inadvertently discriminating against others”. Last week Cheshire police were found guilty of discriminating against a white, heterosexual 25-year-old man because it used positive action in an unlawful way. Matthew Furlong, 25, applied to join the service in 2017 but lost out to other candidates. An employment tribunal found Furlong had been discriminated against on the basis of his sexual orientation, race and sex.
The commission said ignorance of the law was holding back some employers in opening up apprenticeships to minorities. “Employers need to take a confident and pro-active approach if they are really going to make a difference here,” Hilsenrath said. “Unfortunately employers such as Cheshire police falling foul of the law due to a lack of understanding add to this fear. In reality, when used correctly, positive action is a powerful way for employers to address skills shortages and foster inclusive and diverse working environments that allow everyone to reach their full potential.”
The report calls on employers to reserve places for certain groups and provide mentoring to them. It also wants a candidate from a minority group favoured if there is a “tie-in” with a candidate from a non-minority group.
“Used appropriately and robustly, positive action can provide a vitally effective means of tackling disadvantage and under-representation, but unfortunately, there is little practical evaluation of the use of positive action in apprenticeships or in wider employment,” said Professor Chantal Davies at the University of Chester.
The number of apprenticeships in England pledged by next year
White apprentices aged 16-24, against 82% of general population
Women make up only one in 20 new apprentices in building and planning