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Spotlight: Delivering the UK's first economics degree apprenticeship

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Three young Government Economic Service economists, Manraj Bhamra, HM Treasury, Lucia Slater, Department for International Trade, and Olivia Goldin, Department for International Trade
Young economists in the Government Economic Service: (left to right) Manraj Bhamra, HM Treasury; Lucia Slater, Department for International Trade; and Olivia Goldin, Department for International Trade

"We get paid and we get a degree? What’s the catch?"

That was the question put to Shamim Miah, one of the economists at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, when he visited Acland Burghley school in North West London to talk about the Civil Service economics apprenticeship.

“The students couldn’t quite believe the offer”, said Shamim, who is helping to roll out the programme. “They thought there must be some downside, like it’s not a proper degree, or not with a real university, or that they wouldn’t be paid. But there’s no downside. It is a job, a career and, while you work, you earn towards a full economics degree at the University of Kent. Some were worried that it wasn’t for ‘people like them’, but I’m from Tower Hamlets and my message was they could all flourish in our Civil Service.”

Diversity – the watchword

Delivering that diversity was the watchword for Government Economic Service Heads Sam Beckett and Clare Lombardelli when they decided to use the opportunity of the apprenticeship levy to open up new routes into the economics profession.

“The GES has tended to be more diverse than many of the other routes into government” they said, “but
we are always constrained by the composition of those graduating from universities. We saw the opportunity to use the apprenticeship to influence student choices directly before university to try and get greater diversity in the profession.”

And it seems to have worked. Although the scheme started with just 75 places, and a 6-week application window, it received some 2,500 applicants.

“We were bowled over by the response” said Alison Kilburn, head of the GES central team. “Not only did we have a huge volume of applicants, but we were able to attract a diversity in applications we haven’t traditionally seen in the GES and maintain that diversity throughout the assessment centres. Moreover, we’ve done so without sacrificing quality. We’ve rigorously tested these candidates and have been really pleased with the standards.”

Reaching the target audience

Alison puts the attraction down to the social media campaign. “As analysts you’d expect us to try and understand the market, but we spent quite a bit of time up-front working out how to secure our target audience.

With a modest budget, the team focused on Instagram and Snapchat to engage the applicants, and Facebook to influence their parents. We’ve also been surprised with some of the engagement we’re getting on social media, especially around Gladstone, the Treasury cat, who received 2,500 likes for his posting on the apprenticeship.

Getting to this point has been a huge, cross-profession effort over two years. Over the past six months, one team was running the attraction campaign and working with the Government Recruitment Service to design a set of selection tests to select potential recruits. At the same time, a second group was working with the University of Kent to design the programme.

In addition to the logistics of arranging teaching provision across the country, there has been the opportunity to design the economics curriculum to meet the practical needs of life in government.

“As well as the core academic content,” notes Shamim, "we’ve been able to add courses in public economics and key skills such as coding and data science, so we can be sure that our recruits have the skills needed for the job.”

Looking ahead

The first recruits received their offers in early May, and the 75 successful candidates now have to wait until BTEC and A-level results day in August to know if they have made the grade.

But, already, Sam and Clare see it as a success: “Our initial results show we’ve been able to shift the dial on our diversity stats, particularly on gender, which is an area where economics has traditionally struggled. But we aren’t stopping now. We’ve learned a lot, and we are going to be even more ambitious for next year’s recruitment.”

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