The disability employment gap – what needs to be done to change employer attitudes to disability?

Disabled parking (1).jpg

By Heather Cameron

‘Employment rates amongst disabled people reveal one of the most significant inequalities in the UK today’ (The work, health and disability Green Paper, 2016)

The government’s recent green paper highlights the extent of the disability employment gap in the UK, showing that less than half (48%) of disabled people are employed, compared to 80% of the non-disabled population.

Despite an increase in the number of disabled people in work, this employment gap between the disabled and non-disabled population has remained largely static at around 30 percentage points for the past decade. There are nearly four million disabled people in work, but research has shown that more disabled people have fallen out of work than moved into work, while the rest of the population has experienced movement in the opposite direction.

The government’s manifesto ambition is to halve the disability employment gap by 2020 – equivalent to 1.12 million more disabled people in work – but at the current rate of progress, it has been suggested that it would take more than 200 years for the employment gap to halve.

At a time when the UK’s employment rate is at its highest level since records began, with almost 75% of the working population in work, this is a disheartening statistic.


This suggests that disabled people continue to face significant barriers to work. Some that are regularly cited, include:

  • physical barriers such as access to transport and accessibility within places of work;
  • a skills and qualifications gap between the disabled and non-disabled population, with disabled people only about half as likely to go to university as non-disabled people, and less likely to take up an apprenticeship;
  • insufficient support for disabled people;
  • insufficient support for employers; and
  • employer attitudes.

Employer attitudes have been cited as an ongoing issue which appears to stem from a lack of awareness and understanding.

A recent survey of recruiters found that 95% said companies are ‘fearful’ or ‘unsure’ about hiring disabled people. And analysis from disability charity Scope, suggests that employer attitudes haven’t improved over the last four years.

A new report from the Work and Pensions Committee found that many employers are not sure of their Equality Act duties, or are unwilling to make adjustments for disabled employees. It also suggested that there may be ‘discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes’ about the capabilities of disabled people.

Employers’ views

Indeed, employers themselves have highlighted the challenges of employing disabled people. Recent research from Disability Rights UK, which surveyed businesses from across the UK, reveals that one in 10 businesses believe they are unable to employ disabled people.

It also found that the biggest challenge to employing disabled people is that applicants aren’t always willing to be open about their disability, with around half of respondents (47%) saying that it would help if job applicants were more willing to be open about their health condition. Other challenges highlighted include:

  • fellow staff or line managers not having sufficient training to support disabled colleagues, and the lack of accessibility of some businesses for people with certain types of impairments;
  • concern that disabled people are more likely to take time off work;
  • difficulties in discussing the management of disabilities;
  • the cost of modifying equipment, making it expensive to employ disabled people; and
  • concerns that disabled people will claim discrimination if the job does not work out.

Such concerns are often misplaced, however. The survey indicates that businesses feel constrained by a lack of information about the adaptions they may need to make, and the support available to them. It seems that not enough people are aware of Access to Work, the government scheme that provides grants for adjustments to support people with disabilities or health conditions in employment.

And not all attitudes were negative. The vast majority (84%) of respondents said that disabled people make a valuable contribution to the workplace; and more than four-fifths (82%) considered disabled people as productive as non-disabled staff.

Final thoughts

The research clearly demonstrates that more needs to be done to tackle the disability employment gap. The Work and Pensions Committee report concludes that the government will stand little chance of halving the gap unless employers are fully committed to taking on and retaining more disabled people.

In particular, a transformation in attitudes to disability employment and support for disabled people will be required.

As the government’s green paper argues, “real and lasting change will only come about if we can also address negative cultural and social attitudes about disabled people and people with long-term health conditions.”

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Careers guidance: ready for the future?


Image from Flickr user GotCredit, licensed under Creative Commons

By Stacey Dingwall

While there are many areas in which there are indications of recovery since the recession, the scale of youth unemployment is a persistent problem. According to the latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on the 14th of October and covering the period July-August 2015, the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds in the UK is currently 14.8%, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 5.4% for all 16-64 year olds who are eligible for work.

The youth (un)employment problem

Recent research has focused on the importance of improving the employability of young people in order to enhance their job prospects. Numerous employer surveys carried out by organisations including the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) have indicated that employers are frequently unimpressed by the ‘work readiness’ of young people who apply for jobs with them. According to the UKCES, this can partly be attributed to the ‘death of the Saturday job’, and diminishing numbers of young people gaining valuable skills and experience for their future careers.

In its recent publications, Careers England has highlighted the important role of careers advice and education in tackling the youth unemployment rate. Their research highlights both the economic benefits of careers guidance, as well as those for the individual, including enhanced social capital.

Careers guidance, it is argued, “can play an important role in providing individuals with access to information and intelligence that is outside of their immediate social network, offsetting some of the disadvantages offered by inequalities in social capital”. Furthermore, it is suggested that those in receipt of careers guidance will be further aided by it as their working life continues, as it enables them to recognise the importance of networking to their career progression.

Good practice: Scotland

Over the summer, the Scottish Government announced a range of measures and initiatives to boost the employability prospects of the country’s young people. Alongside the announcement of over £5 million in funding for local government to help young people prepare for the world of work (as part of the Developing the Young Workforce youth employment strategy) came the promise of £1.5 million to support schools to provide careers advice to pupils from their first year of secondary school.

These announcements form part of the Scottish Government’s push to reduce youth employment in the country by 40% come 2021. Early indicators that this can be achieved look promising: figures released by the ONS in September covering the period May-July 2015 indicated that the youth unemployment rate in Scotland was at its lowest for this quarter since 2008, with the youth employment rate increasing by 25,000 to reach its highest level since the same period in 2005.

A particular careers guidance related programme that has been successful is My World of Work (MyWoW), an online careers service managed by Skills Development Scotland (SDS). A recent evaluation of the service by Education Scotland found that the value of the service is recognised by schools and colleges alike, with many FE support and teaching staff using it effectively and increasingly to engage learners in researching career options and exploring opportunities for further learning.

A key factor of the service is also its delivery online; as young people are used to engaging online, it is important that information is provided to them in their preferred format, as opposed to the traditional face-to-face interview with a careers advisor. Outside of the UK, countries including Finland have started to trial using social media in their delivery of career guidance.

An English ‘postcode lottery’?

In England, where responsibility for career guidance was devolved to schools in 2011, the landscape is currently a bit more fragmented. An evaluation of careers provision in schools and colleges published this year by Cascaid, a provider of careers information and guidance solutions, found that only 8% of schools/colleges have a systematic approach to integrating careers into the wider curriculum, while just over a third have a programme of activities with local universities and colleges.

English career guidance provision has also come under fire from the government: a 2013 inquiry into provision by the Commons Education Committee raised concerns over “the consistency, quality, independence and impartiality of careers guidance now being offered to young people”; and an Ofsted review following the devolution of responsibility to schools made criticisms including that provision was too “narrow” and not sufficiently coordinated so that all pupils were receiving appropriate guidance. Concerns about the inequity of career guidance have also been raised by the Sutton Trust, whose 2014 Advancing Ambitions report suggested that there was a ‘postcode lottery’ of provision in England.

The new Careers and Enterprise Company has been set up this year with £20 million of initial government funding, and it announced in September the nationwide roll-out of a network of Enterprise Advisers. These volunteers from employers will work directly with
school and college leaders to bridge the gap between the worlds of education and employment.

Future provision

Providing evidence to the Education Committee’s inquiry, the then Education Secretary Michael Gove suggested that careers advisors may not be an essential part of future careers guidance provision. Research has also indicated that pupils prefer to speak to someone they know, particularly subject teachers, with regards to their career ambitions. However, Ofsted’s review also found that the teachers in the schools they evaluated had not received sufficient training to provide information to pupils on the full range of options available to them. This is especially true of vocational education and career paths.

Considering the future of careers work in England, careers education and guidance consultant David Andrews proposes an option that could solve the problems raised above: schools employing resident careers development advisors with the responsibility of providing face-to-face guidance and working with teachers to deliver focused careers education programmes. Presumably this would include building links with local colleges and employers, something that has been identified as vital to increasing the youth employment rate, yet an area in which efforts have also been found to be lacking: per Ofsted, links between careers education and local employment opportunities in England remain “weak”.

Andrews also recommends the provision of an ‘all-age’ careers service in England. What is clear is that the careers education of the future must aspire to joined-up provision, involving clear communication between all parties. The provision of quality careers guidance is essential for not only the individual’s outcomes, but for the economy/society as a whole.


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Reducing re-offending: rehabilitation and integration through employment

By Rebecca Jackson

Prisons in Britain have a poor record for reducing re-offending – 46% of adults are re-convicted within one year of release. And it’s estimated that each year, the financial cost to society of re-offending in Britain is £11bn.

In 2014, 68% of prisoners thought that ‘having a job’ was important in stopping re-offending.

However almost 50% of prisoners in the UK said that they had no qualifications, 40% needed help with education while in prison, and of these, 21% needed help with basic literacy and numeracy.

Government and academic research has supported the idea of employment post-sentence as being a key way to reduce re-offending and help integrate ex-offenders back into society. But opportunities within prison are often limited and once released, former offenders often find employers reluctant to hire them because their criminal record.

Roof Womens Prison Lincoln Castle, Creative Commons, rodtuk, July 2015.

Roof Womens Prison Lincoln Castle, rodtuk via Creative Commons, July 2015.

Building skills within prison

While in prison, inmates are given the opportunity to learn skills, trades and improve their basic literacy and numeracy ability. Some are allowed to do kitchen work within their prison; others work in offices alongside prison staff carrying out menial tasks in order to help strengthen their CV on their return to ‘normal life’.

However for many, there is little or no support, and the skills they learn are not sufficient to get them a job ‘on the outside’.

The prison service has introduced a number of schemes to attempt to improve this preparedness for work in the real world, but as the re-offending statistics show, success has been somewhat limited, with many struggling to stay in work or find work altogether.

Barriers to employment

While in some instances it is a lack of willingness or a lack of preparedness on the part of the former offender, another huge barrier to ex offender employment is the stigma associated with a criminal record and the reluctance of employers to consider people for roles who have served time in prison.

Efforts have been made by both government and independent employment and criminal justice organisations to reduce concern from employers.

Some firms have made a conscious effort, to deliver a series of very public and very successful ex offender training programmes, including companies such as National Grid, Timpsons, First Direct, Co-Op,Marks and Spencer, Virgin, Greggs and DHL.

And the Ban the box campaign, whcih aims to remove the tick box from application forms that asks about criminal convictions, hopes to reduce the impact of stigma even further by allowing ex offending applicants to reach the latter stages of an interview process, after it was found that many employers would automatically exclude someone who had checked this box on an application form.

Innovative offender employment projects

Creative Commons, Robert Fairchild, Cupcakes n sprinkles, 2011

Robert Fairchild via Creative Commons, 2011

The Freedom Bakery, based in Glasgow, is a social enterprise that employs ex-offenders, in the hope that employment will break the cycle of re-offending. The founder of the bakery said the aim of the scheme was to help encourage personal development as well as skills and integrate former offenders back into society. However he stressed that it is not about ‘pity employment‘ – people are given the chance to reform and develop, and the company hopes to make money.

Similarly Bad Boy’s Bakery, the brain child of TV chef Gordon Ramsay is now a well-established CIC (Community Interest Company) run by Working Links. Based at HMP Brixton in London, they sell goods to local Caffe Nero stores, as well as local sellers and within the prison canteen. Recruits are trained to industry standards in food quality and safety, including NVQ Levels 1 and 2 in Food Production, giving them skills in food preparation, baking, stock and time management, as well as knowledge of health and safety.

But it’s not just independent businesses who are engaging with ex- offenders. Well known high street chain Timpson’s also has one of the most successful and well established ex-offender employment schemes in the country. 16 of their shops in the UK are now managed by individuals who have spent time in prison and have come through their rehabilitation scheme.

The National Grid also offers offender training and employment programmes with people coming to the end of their sentences and provides training and a job on release for those selected. Over 2,000 prisoners have completed the scheme which has a re-offending rate of just 6%.

Our infographic breaks down some of the key facts.

Prisoners inforgraphic

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Higher apprenticeships – the way forward?

apprentices in workshopBy Heather Cameron

With the mounting costs associated with higher education study, it isn’t any wonder that young people are looking for alternative routes to their chosen career.

A recent survey has found that 4 in 10 of the first students to pay the higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, say university is not good value.

Opinion varied between students doing different types of courses however. Two-thirds of those studying science, technology, maths and engineering – where a lot of practical teaching and staff time is required – said their courses had been good value.

It would seem that employers are also looking for more than just academic qualifications. It has always been something of a catch-22 situation for graduates who can’t get a job because they don’t have the required work experience, despite having relevant qualifications.

A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy and Research revealed that graduates and A-level students are three times more likely to be jobless a year after finishing their courses than apprentices. It also found that unemployment rates have risen at all levels of education, except within apprenticeships.

Higher apprenticeships

According to a study by ICM Research in 2013, those with a higher, degree-level, apprenticeship were rated by employers as the most employable, ahead of those who had university degrees. The top six qualifications rated the most valuable were:

  • Higher Apprenticeship
  • University degree
  • Advanced Apprenticeship
  • Intermediate Apprenticeship
  • Level 3 vocational qualification
  • A-Levels

Indeed, the many benefits to businesses of higher apprenticeships have been recently highlighted. They enable employers to gain links with universities and colleges which can help them to develop learning programmes based on the skills they need. The National Apprenticeship Service says that higher apprenticeships are critical to the economy as they:

  • respond to employers’ higher level skill needs;
  • support business growth;
  • meet individuals’ career aspirations;
  • and enhance opportunities for social mobility.

Higher apprenticeships, created in 2009, offer a work-based learning programme which includes the achievement of academic and vocational qualifications and learning from level 4 up to bachelor’s and master’s degrees at levels 6 and 7 respectively. Degree apprenticeships are the latest model to be developed as part of the higher apprenticeship.

Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has estimated that the lifetime benefit of undertaking an intermediate apprenticeship is extra earnings of between £48,000 and £74,000, and an advanced apprenticeship between £77,000 and £117,000.

This figure rises to over £150,000 for a higher apprenticeship, comparable to university graduates.

Roll out and take-up

In 2011 the government announced a £25 million fund to support up to 10,000 advanced and higher apprenticeships in order to help businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), gain the high level skills they need to grow.

The Higher Apprenticeship Fund (HAF) aimed to develop a range of higher level apprenticeships, and fund 20,000 apprentices by 2015. The fund was awarded to 29 higher apprenticeship projects, in sectors including accountancy, engineering and law. The government has announced an additional £40m to fund places up until July 2015, and an extra £20m to fund the higher educational element to the end of March 2016.

Following the introduction of the fund, the number of higher apprenticeship starts rose by 68% in 2011/12. There were almost 10,000 starts during 2012/13, representing growth of 165% on the previous year.

In the last academic year over 9,000 people started a higher apprenticeship, with numbers continuing to grow.

Role of universities in providing vocational education

With the growth in higher apprenticeships, universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs) have an important role to play in this provision. The 2015/16 academic year is the first time that there will be a substantial group of HEIs in the apprenticeships delivery network.

A collection of recent think pieces have made a strong case for greater vocational education through universities and colleges. One contributor notes that governments around the world widely accept that vocational education is the way to meet growing industry needs and fill identified skills gaps. But policy makers in the UK are faced with the obstacle of an old-fashioned education system.

It is clear that the traditional form of higher education is not going to supply businesses with the higher level skills needed for economic growth. According to research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), by 2022, two million more jobs will require higher level skills. More than one in five of all vacancies are ‘skills shortage’ vacancies – where employers cannot find people with the skills and qualifications needed.

The research highlights the importance of collaborations between employers and universities in the supply of highly skilled people to meet this demand. It argues that universities and employers need to be innovative, and engaged in promoting different and non-traditional routes into higher skill roles.

Good practice evidence of such collaboration already exists in the UK, as showcased by the 12 case studies, which explore the reasons for and benefits of collaboration in six industrial sectors – Advanced Manufacturing, Construction, Creative and Digital, Energy, IT and Life Sciences.

Across a wide range of collaboration with employers, universities contributed more than £3.5 billion to the UK economy in 2012/13, a 5% increase from the previous year. Significant volumes of courses and continuing professional development (CPD) are also provided by UK HEIs directly to employers, with £423 million worth of business completed in 2012/13, of which £19 million was with SMEs.

Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement. Policy makers, HEIs and businesses all need to work together if the drive towards higher level vocational education is to succeed.

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Further reading

Polytechnics-plus: releasing the potential of colleges, IN Graduate Market Trends, Spring 2015, pp12-13

Higher apprenticeships better than university, IN Workplace Learning and Skills Bulletin, No 120 14 Jul 2014, pp2-3

Economic impact of apprenticeships: a Cebr report for the Skills Funding Agency. Centre for Economics and Business Research (2014)

Improving employability skills, enriching our economy: case study report. National Foundation for Educational Research (2014)

Tomorrow’s growth: new routes to higher skills. Confederation of British Industry (2013)

The potential for higher apprenticeships: research report. Learning and Skills Improvement Service (2013)

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