Ethnicity & skills: figuring out the challenges, unlocking solutions

10 October 2017

Launching the new Ethnicity Facts and Figures website today, Theresa May has challenged us all to ‘explain or change’ how people from different backgrounds are treated. Though the Prime Minister acknowledges that “People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge”, the extensive data contained within this Audit provides us all with a unique opportunity to better understand persistent race inequality – and more importantly, to do something about it. This is an opportunity that the education, skills and training sector must embrace if we are serious about unlocking individual potential and providing our communities, businesses and economy with the skills and capabilities needed to thrive.

At Learning and Work Institute, we have been working closely with government and others to widen access to apprenticeships. We know that people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, from low income families, and with health problems and disabilities are less likely to undertake an apprenticeship. There is also significant gender segregation by sector and occupation. These inequalities restrict opportunity for people simply because of their background and mean that employers are missing out on potential talent. They heighten our productivity challenge and prevent us developing the skills we need post-Brexit. We believe that it is critical that everyone who could benefit from an apprenticeship should have fair chance to access one.

People from a black, Asian and minority background make up around 15.6% of the working age population. In contrast, the Ethnicity Facts & Figures website shows that in 2015, just 10.5% of learners starting an apprenticeship were from an ethnic minority background. Is this about a lack of interest in apprenticeships? No, our analysis of the government’s, Find An Apprenticeship website, shows that people from BAME backgrounds make up 19 per cent of all applications – ie they are over-represented in applications – but have a much lower success rate. White apprenticeship applicants are twice as likely to succeed in their application than BAME applicants.

So how should we respond? Tackling direct and indirect discrimination will be important, as will be ensuring diversity of role models, providing support through the application process, and thinking carefully about new forms of marketing and communication. But our analysis shows that the problem is more complex than that – with sector and geography playing an important role. A deeper dive into the data shows that BAME applicants often focus on sectors with high competition and therefore low success rates overall, and live in areas with relatively low apprenticeship vacancies. Increasing apprenticeship opportunities in particular areas is therefore likely to be part of the solution, as is investing in careers advice to help people match aspirations to available opportunities. While tackling these issues may present more of a challenge – they could make more of an impact.

We are delighted that the government has published data on ethnicity. I’m sure that it will fuel many headlines and much debate over the days and weeks to come. More importantly however, our hope is that this data enables us not only to see the challenge more clearly, but also to unlock some of the solutions. We look forward to working with others to make this a reality.