This week is both Scottish Apprenticeship Week and also Learning Disability Awareness Week, presenting an ideal opportunity to raise awareness of the benefits of a modern apprenticeship for employers and young people, as well as highlighting the merit in considering those with additional support needs (ASN) as candidates for such places.
The Scottish Government has announced the expansion of its Modern Apprenticeship programme from 25,000 starts a year to 30,000 by 2020, a move which is to be commended, particularly as we remain in the midst of economic recession and Scottish youth unemployment remains 0.5% higher than the rest of the UK at 20.6%.
However, figures from Skills Development Scotland show that only 0.32% of those in a modern apprenticeship have a declared disability, down from 0.48% in 2010/11. But about 8% of the 16-24-year-old target population is disabled.
I mention this with caution as figures are based upon self-declaration and there will be instances where people choose not to disclose their status. But this figure is still woefully low.
We have a collective responsibility to give the most vulnerable people the opportunity to realise their full potential. The rewards of getting these young people, many of whom boast excellent skills, into work are well worth it, with higher loyalty and retention rates.
Apprenticeship programmes provide the opportunity to do just this and help businesses thrive, especially in the sectors where we face a skills shortage.
Take former Spark of Genius pupil Darren as an example. Spark of Genius is an independent organisation offering residential care, education, autism services, post-16 employability programmes and adult services throughout the UK. It enables children, young people and adults who need a variety of support to achieve their potential.
When he was referred to the organisation, Darren had large gaps in his education, low academic self- confidence, anger management issues and limited interaction with peers of his own age.
Through drama, giving peer tutor responsibilities and providing tailored support, he was able to go to West Lothian College to study computing.
He then applied for an apprenticeship programme through QA apprenticeships (IT apprenticeship providers) at Systal Technology Solutions, based in Livingston which has customers across sectors throughout the UK and globally.
Darren was successfully selected from 12 other candidates due to his drive, determination and ability. He completed his apprenticeship some18 months ago and works full time for Systal.
He also took and passed his Cisco exams, making him a Cisco certified network associate (CCNA). He studied for this qualification in his spare time. Darren loves his work and the associated challenges and experiences. Systal hope that Darren stays with them as an employee for as long as possible and they are focussing on training him to move on to a specialist network helpdesk in the next few months. Darren is proof of the argument that those with additional support needs and care experience can be just as much, if not more, of an asset to employers as those without.
The continued work of the Scottish Government in offering young people such as Darren, through the likes of the Employer Recruitment Incentive and Make Young People Your Business campaign, is to be welcomed and improves the chances of this often forgotten group.
However, we need greater involvement from businesses and employers as it is they who can make the vital difference.
As we mark both Scottish Apprenticeship Week and Learning Disability Awareness Week, I would urge Scotland's businesses to look beyond the label and look at the skills and talents of these individuals and help us to create more stories like Darren's.