How apprenticeships can help close the UK disability employment gap

SOURCE: aerogondo2/Shutterstock
The disability employment rate is 28.9 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities.

By Emma Richards 

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In any successful workforce, diversity is key. Creating a workplace where everyone can thrive, regardless of their background or any barriers the may have working against them, is an essential ingredient to surviving in today’s fast-paced, dynamic business environment.

Significant headway has been made in the crusade for a diverse and equitable work environment for many. There are very few human resource departments across the country that don’t have gender and racial bias considerations at the forefront of their mind when making a new hire. And this awareness is slowly chipping away at the societal injustices that have blighted minorities’ working lives for too long.

But there is one area that still needs a lot of work and doesn’t always grab the headlines in the way other causes have been doing in the last few years.

Despite concerted efforts to rectify it, there remains in the UK a significant disability employment gap when compared to those without declared disabilities.


In June 2019, 7.7 million people of working age in the UK reported that they had a disability. According to the UK Parliament, that’s 19 percent of the working age population. Of these, only 52.6 percent were in employment. For comparison, the employment rate for people without disabilities was 81.5 percent in 2019, up from 81.1 percent in 2018.

While this is up from the previous year, it still puts the disability employment rate 28.9 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities.

While there are many extenuating factors behind this discrepancy, evidence suggests the difference it is far bigger than it needs to be, with strong will on both sides to close the disability employment gap.

According to a report from the Open University, 94 percent of employers are looking to either grow or maintain the number of graduate and apprentice hires they make in the next 12 months. As part of this growth, hiring people with a disability is important for more than two in three – 68 percent – employers.

disability employment
Hiring people with a disability is important for more than two in three – 68 percent – employers. Source: ALPA PROD / Shutterstock

Employers are even partnering up with appropriate organisations to guide them in attracting and recruiting people with disabilities, supplementing their own resources with expert knowledge. Partner organisations include specialist recruitment agencies, training providers, the national unemployment office, and third sector organisations such as Mind, The Prince’s Trust and Scope.

There has also been a strong effort on behalf of the government, hoping apprenticeships may hold the key to bridging the divide to work.

In a 2018 report on the matter, the government set a goal of increasing the proportion of apprentices with a declared disability by 20 percent by 2020.

After making a nationwide shift towards vocational education, parliament saw apprenticeships as a gateway to social mobility, not just for people with disabilities, but everyone.

Apprenticeships schemes popped up that were open and inclusive to all, providing a clear pathway into work. They wanted to ensure that more people with disabilities were able to take advantage of these apprenticeships.

To support this goal, the Department for Education (DfE) created the Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network (ADCN) to promote best practice in diversity recruitment amongst employers and encourage them to target under-represented groups.


But the initiatives have been accused of a “lack of ambition” by the National Audit Office and they have sadly failed to reach their targets, with DfE statistics showing in 2018-19, only 12.3 percent of individuals starting an apprenticeship in England declared a learning difficulty or disability.

Although the proportion has increased slightly each year from 7.7 percent in 2011-12, this still only represents just over half of the total proportion of people with disabilities in the UK – almost one in five of the working-age population

So with employers so eager to hire and the government pushing resources towards making it happen, why hasn’t there yet been an influx of people with disabilities into the apprenticeships schemes and the disability employment gap already been closed?

The Open University found that while employers are certainly not lacking in enthusiasm, they are lacking support.

Despite the government pushing the hiring initiative and providing resources to help employers execute it, 18 percent of all employers surveyed were not using any external support. And 43 percent of these employers were unaware of what support is available to them or are not sure about how to access the support the government is providing.

disability employment
The Open University found that while employers are certainly not lacking in enthusiasm to employ people with disabilities, they are lacking support. Source: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

The report found this was particularly prevalent in small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) with a whopping 56 percent of respondents unclear on the support available compared to 28 percent amongst larger employers.

Additional resources may be needed when hiring people with disabilities – in the past, this was a commonly used excuse as a barrier to employment. The Open University found this is still a concern for many employers with 47 percent saying they could do with more internal support to aid them in accommodating apprentices and graduates with declared disabilities. This was a concern across all levels of business, from SMEs to large corporations.

Ensuring current staff are prepared was also a challenge for many. Employers feel that their management and operational teams are unprepared to support individuals with disabilities with only 27 percent of employers stating that their line managers are “very prepared.”

While the drive is there to employ people with disabilities, it appears the knowledge is not. There appeared to be a knowledge gap regarding what kind of practical adjustments would be needed when hiring.

The gap in understanding between goal and reality could be a worrying one. But employers are not slowing their drive to employ people with disabilities. After all, 38 percent of employers have started to proactively recruit individuals with disabilities in the past three years.


All employers are asking for is more support. They believe training providers are key, not only in supporting apprentices but in helping prepare current staff, especially management, on the requirements. Educating management on where and how to access financial support is also a key function of these providers.

While many are willing to accept that some of the financial accountability falls with the employer, they also believe this should be a shared responsibility with the government.

Without this support system around the apprenticeship schemes, there are potentially dire consequences that can prove damaging for both the apprentice and the employer. Individuals have dropped out as a result and some have experienced mental health issues.

Employers also suffer blows in including financial cost, loss of talent, and a loss of confidence in recruiting apprentices with disabilities.

While the challenges may still be present, employers are more than willing to overcome them. With the support needed from government and training providers, apprenticeships pose a real solution to the serious problem of the disability employment gap.