disabled workers
Most UK employers feel "unequipped" to hire people with declared disabilities. Source: Shutterstock

The UK government needs to help businesses widen access to apprenticeships and jobs for disabled workers, a new report has suggested.

Employers currently feel “unequipped” to hire people with declared disabilities, according to the recently published report titled Access to Apprenticeships by The Open University. This inadequate support impacts apprentices and graduates, resulting for example, in a lack of one-to-one support as well as accessible learning materials and training facilities.

“We know that employers have a strong appetite to grow the number of apprentices they hire in the future and also want to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce and hire more apprentices with disabilities so today we are calling on the UK Government to help make clear the support that’s available for employers, and examine how the apprenticeship levy in England could be used to streamline the process and widen access to the workplace for apprentices with declared disabilities,” said Laura Burley, Apprenticeships Ambassador at The Open University.

More than one in ten (12.3 percent) of people starting apprenticeships in England have learning difficulties and/or disabilities, according to government data. However, this figure represents almost half that of people in the general population (19.5 percent) with declared disabilities. The UK government’s goal, set in 2018, is to increase the proportion of apprentices with a declared disability by 20 percent by 2020.

What progress has the UK government and employers made thus far?

The Open University’s survey of over 700 large and small employers across England found that more than two in three (68 percent) employers in England said hiring people with disability is important to them. In the past three years, more than one-third (38 percent) of businesses have started to proactively recruit apprentices and graduates with disabilities.

In addition to internal HR departments, they partner with specialist recruitment agencies, training providers/colleges, Job Centre Plus and third sector organisations such as Mind, The Prince’s Trust and Scope to attract this group of candidates.

Within their recruitment pool, employers are seeing an “equal split of disabilities” between physical impairments, mental health conditions and learning difficulties being declared.

However, most reported facing “a range of barriers” in hiring individuals with disabilities. Most are unaware of the support that’s available to enable them to do so. Close to half (43 percent) of employers surveyed are unaware of what support is available to them or are unclear as to how to access the support. This figure is more pronounced among SMEs, with 56 percent reporting they are unclear on the support available compared to 28 percent amongst larger employers.

Close to half (47 percent) of employers said they could do with more internal resources to support apprentices and fresh graduates with declared disabilities.

One employer quoted in the report said: “We have lots of internal mechanisms but we would like more support from our training provider. They could help to train other staff as mentors to understand people’s learning styles.”

There are “knowledge gaps” among employers about providing equal opportunities to disabled job candidates. This includes lacking knowledge and understanding of potential practical adjustments required. Only slightly more than a quarter (27 percent) reported their line managers are “very prepared” to support these individuals – most management and operational teams are unprepared.

Responding to the findings, Burley said: “Support is available from both the UK Government and learning providers to enable businesses to hire and support apprentices with declared disabilities. Our report shows that a lack of understanding of the resources available creates a disconnect and as a result, there is a danger it reduces the opportunities that are opened up to candidates with declared disabilities.”

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