Could a new focus on apprenticeships help solve healthcare's historic talent shortage?

When we ask our members what their biggest challenges are, one answer always comes back - talent: the recruitment of talent, the retention of talent and the development of new talent for our sector.

Consider apprenticeships as a way to solve the healthcare comms talent crisis, writes Mike Dixon
Consider apprenticeships as a way to solve the healthcare comms talent crisis, writes Mike Dixon
It’s a multifactorial challenge needing a wide range of strategies. As a specialist sector, recruiting for the mid-level grades especially is a real problem, because demand is increasing and the volume of people is just not there. 

There is a thought that this is in part due to the sector historically under-investing in bringing in new talent (recruiting for the moment, not the potential future needs) and, of course, the ‘leaky bucket’ scenario where we have lost talent to outside the sector, freelance or part-time working.  

There are exceptions, with some organisations doing better than others in these areas, but overall it’s the challenge at the forefront of everybody’s minds. We need to start looking at different ways to bring new talent into healthcare communications and, indeed, more diverse talent.  

Who better, for example, to understand some of the cultural and socioeconomic challenges for the diverse patient populations that healthcare interventions target, than those from these backgrounds?

Apprenticeships have a potential role in helping address some of these challenges, but they perhaps suffer from an historic – and extremely outdated perception – of being focused on those who are weaker academically and looking to get a start in a ‘manual trade’.  

The modern apprentice may be a school leaver achieving at the top academically, but equally they might be a graduate, a person changing career path or coming into the sector for the first time, or an existing employee for which a focused development path is required. 

And they can be aged anywhere from 16 to 75 plus. 

What apprenticeships offer organisations is a productive and effective way to grow talent and develop a motivated, skilled and qualified individual. And there are financial benefits too.  

Organisations need to pay their apprentice a salary, but the training and assessment costs are supported by government.  

In England, if your organisation has an existing salary bill of more than £3m, then you will already be paying an apprenticeship levy to the government. 

Taking on an apprentice allows you to capitalise on these funds as you’ll receive all the costs through the apprenticeship service to spend on training and assessing your apprentices. 

The government will also add 10 per cent to these funds.  

Even if you are not a levy payer, you only need to pay five per cent towards the training and assessment.
Over a 12- to 18-month apprenticeship, the apprentice will spend at least 20 per cent of their time on off-the-job training with the chosen training provider.

Apprenticeship standards set out the knowledge, skills and behaviours the apprentice needs to be competent in a particular occupation. 

A host of standards already exist for the generic principles of the healthcare communications professional’s role.  

However, being a specialised area, understandably we want apprentices to learn these skills in the context of healthcare communications.  

The provider will also support recruitment and on-boarding of an apprentice.  

The first cohort of apprentices will be employed by HCA member agencies and start training in early 2020, bringing new and diverse talent into our sector for its future growth.  

We need to think more diversely and long term to ensure we have the talent we need in healthcare communications for the future. 

Apprenticeships are one way we can help reach this goal. If you haven’t considered it before, perhaps now is the time.

Mike Dixon is CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association 

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