Apprenticeship employers: Problems with recruiting for social mobility

During National Apprenticeship Week 2021 Tom, our Employer Relationships Manager, was invited by the Social Mobility Commission to join an expert panel for a webinar entitled “Apprenticeships: a game-changer for social mobility”. 

We’re best known for our work with schools and FE colleges, but we also work closely with government, leading social mobility charities and around 1000 of the country’s biggest and boldest apprenticeship employers. It the ‘bigger picture’ insight our positioning gives us that we were on the panel to share. 

With so much to talk about and so little time, we were always going to be left feeling like the conversation could have been twice as long.  

So we sat down with Tom (virtually), and asked him to explore one of the questions he was asked in a little more detail. 


Hi Tom. We were hoping you might be able to talk a bit more around one of the questions you were asked on the SMC webinar in National Apprenticeship Week. 

Hello! Absolutely, I’d love to dig into some of that conversation a bit more. 


OK – What are the most common challenges employers come to you with around outreach and hiring, and what do you think would be the biggest gamechanger to make apprenticeships more accessible for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds?”  

This was such an interesting bit of the National Apprenticeship Week conversation. Let me start with the first part of the question. 

Apprenticeships are a uniquely placed route into employment that allow people from less advantaged backgrounds to train while earning a wage, to get a foot in the door at some of the country’s best and brightest businesses, and to progress after their programme into permanent employment.  

They’ve got this immense potential to do social good. AND we know that diversifying a workforce has a huge impact on corporate cultures and bottom lines – that having people from a range of backgrounds working for a business helps that business to make more money.  

That puts apprenticeships and early careers pros in a strategically essential position – a position where practical changes to the processes and frameworks they oversee can make a significant, measurable difference in all the ways that matter. 

But employers do struggle with recruiting for social mobility, and there are definitely common stumbling blocks. These can include: 

  • Finding/reaching the most disadvantaged – how to share messaging with schools in key geographies, and how to reach people once they are outside of the schooling system 
  • How to speak to those people, and how to address their barriers/issues with confidence 
  • High dropout rates during application processes, often due to time (for people who perhaps need to be in paid employment asap), or due to stages in the process that aren’t accessible in some way 
  • People from less advantaged backgrounds self-selecting out of applying for even entrylevel roles at prestigious/well-known institutions 
  • Cultural, familial or social biases against apprenticeships.

And are there answers to those challenges? 

Absolutely. Some of the answers are complex, or expensive, or hinge on some sort of fundamental structural or cultural change in an organisation. But lots of them aren’t like that – people in the apprenticeships and early careers space are really well placed to make some simple, quick changes that can rapidly and radically improve access to opportunity. 

For example: 

  • Think about how and where vacancies are advertised. Where do the people you want to reach look? How do they consume media and how do they search for jobs? Consider the language, imagery and calls to action you’re using, and the message they send to people about the kind of applicants these roles are ‘for’. 
  • Even small changes to application processes can impact how well those processes accommodate talent from less advantaged backgrounds. Changes like advertising details around pay and flexible working, and making applicationskills/character traits/potential based, rather than qualifications based, can make a huge difference. 

(There’s a bigger conversation here around training providers removing formal maths and English requirements as entry criteria for programmes – but that’s a topic for another day.) 


What about the second bit of the questions – “What do you think would be the biggest game-changer to make apprenticeships more accessible for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds?” 

This is pretty simple too – I think that companies of all sizes need to buy in to addressing this agenda from every level of the business. 

When we talk about ‘buy in’ we mean having the willingness to platform disadvantaged voices, listen and learn, reflect on current processes, and affect change where it’s needed 

Apprenticeships and early careers teams are in a position to make changes – often small, often inexpensive – to processes that can add up to a significant culture shift, but senior level buy in is essential for ensuring that this agenda is properly respected and resourced. 


The next Time for Change workshop “Barriers to Access” will tackle a lot of these issues head on, by the sounds of things? 

We’ve been running a series of social mobility/D&I webinars called ‘Time for Change’. The next of these workshops is called “Barriers to Access: the apprentice perspective”, and will see us discuss the exact issues we’ve touched on here with a panel of apprentices with first-hand experience of these barriers. 

It’s going to be a discussion full of unique insight – people can register to attend this free event by clicking here. 


And what can people do if they want to tackle this agenda headon? 

We’ve designed a unique social mobility/D&I programme for apprenticeships and early careers professionals that will immerse delegates in the key issues, help them reflect on how their own organisation could improve, and give them a structured way to deliver real, measurable change to how they attract, recruit and retain diverse and disadvantaged talent. 

Employers can register their interest in finding out more about The Genie Programme now, and join employers including Coca-Cola and AstraZeneca on the programme from May. 


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