Rethinking NHS Recruitment Through Professional Apprenticeships

The NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan, released in June, sought to address the ongoing staffing challenges facing the NHS. One of the most talked-about features of the plan was a commitment to training one in six NHS clinicians through apprenticeships over the next five years, which resulted in criticism from various stakeholders including health professionals and the media, raising concerns about quality of care provided.

This is not the first time professional apprenticeships have been looked at with skepticism.

When they were first introduced, the role of apprenticeships was doubted in many industries. But apprenticeships have proven themselves to be a trusted tool, serving to not only help diversify the workplace but also upskill it while ensuring efficiency. And with 8,500 unfilled medical vacancies and 124,000 vacancies across NHS England as a whole last year, it’s clear a fresh approach to training and upskilling within the health service is fundamentally needed.

Boosting Recruitment and Diversity

A new approach to training has become essential to boost staff intake and diversity due to the higher costs of traditional career pathways into health — especially because the core of the government’s proposal is to create alternative routes into professional roles in the health service.

Apprenticeships offer a hands-on opportunity for individuals from all backgrounds to enter the sector, bringing fresh perspectives and diverse skill sets, reducing workforce shortages, and addressing diversity issues. At present, less than 20% of the 1.3 million people that work in the health service regard themselves as being from an ethnic minority background. However, in a recent survey of NHS Trusts, BPP revealed that 60% believed apprenticeships had helped increase diversity, 63% thought they had helped boost equality in the workplace and 71% mentioned their role in increasing inclusivity.

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Ensuring Staff Retention

Professional apprenticeships are not only a solution for boosting recruitment but also retaining and nurturing the existing NHS workforce. As the era of “forever careers” fades, people are seeking greater flexibility and growth opportunities. The NHS must acknowledge and adapt to this shifting paradigm.

Apprenticeships allow ambitious trainees to expand their skill sets through various roles and opportunities provided within the NHS. Additionally, the “earn while you learn” benefit of apprenticeships is a great option for those who cannot afford to take time out from full-time employment to retrain.

By creating avenues for retraining through apprenticeships, the NHS can demonstrate a firm commitment to supporting its employees throughout their careers and position them for progression. This approach would help bolster staff retention and foster a culture of continuous learning and upward mobility critical to the NHS’s long-term success and growth.

Future Upskilling

While the introduction of healthcare provided by robots might still be a distant future, conversation around the potential of technology and AI to reshape our health services is have already begun. When revealing the NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan, Health Secretary Steve Barclay admitted that AI has the potential to catalyze the NHS’ productivity, radically transforming clinical and non-clinical areas of health care. However, the NHS will need to ensure its staff are fully equipped with the right skills to take advantage of new technology.

Apprenticeships provide a structured framework for NHS staff to learn and acquire these technical skills. Embracing professional apprenticeship schemes could prepare the workforce to quickly adapt to the evolving needs of the NHS, ensuring a dynamic, adaptable workforce ready to tackle the challenges of the future.

Final Thoughts

Professional apprenticeships are a multi-purpose tool that could be of great benefit to the NHS — with their ability to help address workforce shortages, promote diversity, support career professions, and upskill staff with the latest skills. They can bring in new talent and help transform the NHS into a powerhouse of adaptability and high-quality, patient-centered care.

It’s time to ditch outdated notions around the so-called “correct” pathway into health care and embrace the power of apprenticeships. BPP’s research indicates that the sector is increasingly aware of the potential of apprenticeships — NHS Trusts now use a greater variety of apprenticeships standards than ever before, and the number of standards used in NHS increased from 86 in 2018 to 196 in 2022.

Together, we hope to build a stronger, more adaptable NHS that delivers exceptional care to all. The journey begins now.

Nichola Hay

Nichola Hay
Nichola Hay is director of apprenticeship strategy and policy at BPP Education Group.

Nichola Hay

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