Image: Mental health services in Yorkshire and the Humber.According to Health Education England (HEE) data, staff in Band 1-4 roles make up around 40% of the 1.7 million workers in the NHS and are responsible for an estimated 60% of direct patient contact. However, there is evidence that this group of staff has not benefited from the same level of investment in learning and development opportunities as their medical and registered colleagues.

Improvements in healthcare services, such as new techniques and technologies, mean that we can all expect to live longer. In 2010, there were 10 million people in the UK over 65 years old. This number is predicted to increase to 15.5 million by 2030 and for it to have almost doubled to 19 million by 2050. There will be an increase in the demand and strain placed on healthcare services as life expectancy increases, leading to more complex treatment and care needs. Patients may have both physical and mental health disorders and disabilities.

At the same time, the ageing demographic is also having an impact on the healthcare workforce itself; the so-called baby boomers are retiring, and many organisations will need to recruit significant numbers of new staff over the next decade to fill the skills gap.

Many NHS trusts and other healthcare providers are experiencing huge difficulties in the recruitment and retention of both registered staff and healthcare support workers. For those organisations providing mental health and learning disabilities services, the problem is perhaps most severe as traditionally these service areas have been perceived as being of lower priority than those providing physical interventions.

Providers of mental health and learning disabilities services recognise that they need to respond to these challenges and that they must respond to the integration of health and social care services and tighter budgets. They need to recruit staff with the right attitudes and abilities who will be able to deliver the services of the future. So, the question is: how do we unearth the talented workforce of the future? One answer is for organisations to grow their own registered workforce through apprenticeships.

HEE’s Talent for Care strategy framework was designed to develop the healthcare support workforce. Launched in March 2015 in partnership with Widening Participation, it is structured around three themes:

1. Get In: Opportunities for people to start their career in a support role.
2. Get On: Support people to be the best they can be in the job they do.
3. Go Further: Provide opportunities for career progression, including into registered professions

Our ongoing work in Yorkshire and the Humber is an interesting example of putting the ‘Get In, Get On, Go Further’ strategy into practice. Skills for Health, in partnership with HEE in the region, led a wide-ranging programme to help recruit, retain and develop support staff in organisations providing mental health and learning disabilities services. This has included support for the introduction of apprenticeships.

The introduction of clinical apprenticeships in mental health and learning disabilities services has proved to be successful. Part of this success has been achieved by using assessment days to identify people who have the right behaviours and attitudes to work in a caring role at the outset.

Once the ‘get in’ phase is complete, the focus switches to the provision of appropriate learning and development as well as career progression pathways for healthcare support workers so that they can ‘get on’. Historically, there has been a glass ceiling that has prevented all but a few healthcare support workers progressing into registered practitioner roles. Skills for Health has worked with a variety of NHS partners in the region to develop an innovative bridging programme, which helps facilitate progression into registered posts, to ‘go further’ and break through that glass ceiling.

The view requires a change in mindset but, ultimately, the effort and investment will be rewarded because organisations will have grown their own properly skilled workforce through a cost effective and rewarding apprenticeship programme.

Our advice is to view multiple channels for recruitment, and ensure there is always plenty of opportunity to upskill existing staff through new apprenticeship schemes, learning and development.