Empowering Futures: Q&A with Jagdeep Soor on Apprenticeships and Equity

October 4, 2023

In this Employability Chats Q&A, we have the opportunity to delve into the world of apprenticeships and employability with Jagdeep Soor, the Head of Strategic Partnerships for Pathway Group. With over two decades of experience in the field, Jagdeep shares insights about the programmes offered by Pathway Group, his personal career journey, the importance of apprenticeships, and the challenges they face. He also sheds light on the role of technology in supporting people. Jagdeep's perspective and experiences offer valuable insights and inspiration.

Jagdeep Soor, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Pathway Group

Q: Welcome to “Employability Chats” Jagdeep. You are Head of Strategic Partnerships for Pathway Group who support individuals looking to upskill and reskill. Can you tell us more about the programmes Pathway Group delivers and what programmes your role is focused on?

Sure. The Pathway Group was set up over 22 years ago in an area within East Birmingham. The demographic for that was mainly Pakistani, Afghanistani, Southeast Asian population. We delivered ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). It's an organisation that's grown now to delivering across six combined authority areas and delivering programmes such as apprenticeships, adult education budget, advanced learner loans, multiply, and the DWP Restart program as well. 

We also run a number of initiatives that are still within the Pathway ecosystem, but not necessarily around operational delivery. The Multicultural Apprenticeship Alliance, The Apprenticeship Diversity and Social Mobility Forum, The Multicultural Apprenticeship Awards and the Festival Apprenticeship. The way I split it is we have our events piece, which are the Multicultural Apprenticeship Awards, which are a celebration of talent diversity across apprenticeships with an annual award ceremony, and the Festival Apprenticeships, which are a Careers Festival of Apprentices run across three areas in three locations. Birmingham, Manchester and London. Promoting apprenticeships through our Events side. What I run is that day to day activity around promoting apprenticeships and employability, Multicultural Apprenticeship Alliance and the The Apprenticeship Diversity & Social Mobility Forum.

Q: I hear so many great career journeys on these chats. What about your own - what has been your path leading up to your current role at Pathway Group? 

This is just an assumption of mine, I presume that there are many people you’ve spoken to who have got into this sector by accident rather than being with a careers adviser at school and what I want to do is get into employability and skills. 

So on my journey, I went to university. I left university after two years. I was unemployed for a number of years, and I got a job at the Employment Services (now DWP) as an admin assistant. I have worked on the majority of mainstream DWP employability contracts from the early 2000s. All the various reforms that they had - Work Programme, Work & Health Programme and Restart. I’ve worked across all geographical areas in England and Great Britain. I've done some work in Northern Ireland as well, working on their Step to Success contract. Also working for new entrants to the employability and skills market, such as Serco, who were the first managing agents and then G4S as well who were the most successful new entrant to the employment and skills market. 

Following that I left there and then worked for an organisation called People Plus and worked quite a bit in Northern Ireland for them, setting up and mobilising a contract for them called Steps to Success. Following that, I did work in the health & social care and Criminal Justice Sectors - another reform of the Ministry of Defense called Transforming Rehabilitation and setting up the supply chain for those contracts. I worked for Advance Housing Association, leading their Employment and Skills Division.  

I wanted to work in research, data, evidence and test and learn insights, that’s when I went to work for an organisation called Centre for Ageing Better, which is a part of the What Works Centre - a think tank really. Looking at the 50 plus demographic across three work streams - so that would be health, housing and employment. And I ran the employment section of that and did quite a lot of work around the issues of those that are 50 plus being economically inactive so identified the issue around that very early on. 

I worked on “Redundancy and Skills” which was a great program for those that had been made redundant from the automotive and manufacturing sector within the West Midlands and where I got quite a large amount of funding from Barclays in regards to that. It was around Brexit time and I could see there was an issue around those sectors and the supply chain partners for those sectors within the West Midlands. 

We saw issues around 50 plus economic inactivity very early on to the point where Rishi Sunak when he was Chancellor, before me leaving there, actually ring fenced £20 million for the 50 plus initiative. There was an increase in work coaches and we worked with a lot of organisations and a lot of combined authorities. The IEP were a partner on some work we did, around an online training program to train frontline advisers to support those 50 plus. Then that role came to an end and that brought me to the Pathway Group. Specifically looking after the multicultural apprenticeship type initiatives. Essentially we're looking to increase the diversity and inclusion of our patrons. We're also looking to promote social mobility, equity, diversity and inclusion in apprenticeships and employability. 

Just to touch on what our pillars are, we're founded on three pillars. The first is education - educating the various stakeholders, commissioners, parents, carers and the aspiring apprentice or the individual themselves from a multicultural background. Our second pillar is around engagement. So how do we engage with these individuals? And our target really is to engage with 10,000 multicultural individuals by the end of next year, 2024. So how do we do that? What innovative stuff can we do around that? So we're going to schools and we're doing a lot of innovative stuff around that. And the third pillar is around advocacy and policy. That's a new pillar that I introduced because we have such an influential group of patrons and so many individuals that are part of those organisations that I really think we can influence local, regional and national policy to a point where we're looking for more funding for these types of programs to educate and engage the multicultural community in apprenticeships and employability.

This sector is about the passion and the empathy you have to support individuals - particularly those who are most marginalised. I have a lived experience of someone who was born in Kenya, but came over here quite young and was brought up in a marginalised area where you saw other individuals being unemployed who needed that support and equity of opportunity and that accessibility of opportunity. And what I wanted to do is help and support these individuals.

Q: Apprenticeships play a big part in your role. Tell us your favourite apprentice story and why apprenticeships are such an important pathway for people moving into work or to support career changes? 

I've got many stories. Being part of the Multicultural Apprenticeship Alliance and with the Multicultural Apprenticeship Awards you get to hear these stories all the time and we really engage with our multicultural apprentices as well. So even outside the awards, we get them to come to our conferences, seminars that I get invited to, summits etc. for them to share their experiences. So I have a number of great stories around degree level apprenticeships.  Apprentices training to become solicitors, engineers, accountants, doctors and that's fabulous to see, particularly from those from a multicultural community. 

But there's one story that really stands out for me which really focuses and embeds the work that we're doing around the Multicultural Apprenticeship Alliance and Apprenticeship Diversity and Social Mobility Forum. This story stands out in terms of overcoming adversity and has social mobility at its core, at its essence. This lady has shared her story a number of times and the first time I heard it was at the Multicultural Friendship Awards last year and I think there were over 600 people in the audience and she got a standing ovation. This is somebody who was born in Pakistan, went through a number of issues in Pakistan in terms of family life and an abusive father relationship and then came over to England and experienced the same and then went into care. She went into foster care and was taken in by an English family. However, this young person was of Pakistani heritage, Muslim faith, and they actually allowed her to continue with her faith, which was very important to her. And throughout that program she got involved with a training provider who had an apprenticeship opportunity. This training provider is actually a patron of ours and took her on as an apprentice and really supported her through that process, through her level two, to her actually finishing her level three in an administrative apprenticeship. Things progressed to the point where she's gone back to Pakistan, got married, her husband's come over, got a job, and that's all through her own drive and commitment through adversity but also through the support of a great employer, a great training provider, who I speak to on a regular basis. And they've really supported and really been flexible with her sort of needs and whatever, and really empathised with her as well. So in terms of sort of stories, and if you look at sort of success stories, I think that's probably my favourite.

Q: There are some stats around dropout rates being almost 50% with apprenticeships. What do you think are the key reasons behind these stats and what can be done to influence better retention and completion.    

There's a number of issues really, and we can split them in terms of the individual themselves, the employer and then the training provider. There are personal issues with a number having caring responsibilities or responsibilities in terms of the home and the apprenticeship not being potentially flexible enough for them to continue with that. 

There is also that piece exacerbated by the time of COVID and obviously now the cost of living in terms of how it's affected people's mental and physical health. There's also an issue around the fact that an apprenticeship is a fabulous and a fabulous program, but you have to understand that it's a job and learning at the same time. It's about working with your employer but also creating your own structure so you have enough time and have enough capacity to do that learning and to do that training and to do your core activity, that learning activity that your apprenticeship wants. 

I think there's factors in terms of the quality of training that the employer may provide. Some employers may just take on, for example an SME, may just take an apprentice on but not have enough time or that skill or that experience to train this person in terms of what the job role is. So there's the impact of that and that really rolls on in terms of that on the job training and off the job training as well. Is it fit for purpose and is it achieving what they need to achieve? 

I think with COVID and due to the Cost of Living in terms of how the labour market has changed as well. There's been a number of redundancies and the impact on various sectors such as hospitality, that's really taken a big knock. Also that real issue, which again has been exacerbated by COVID and the cost of living in particular, is that need for higher pay rather than doing apprenticeship. Is there a better job there that's higher paid? Not better for your career aspirations but really short term thinking because of the cost of living and the impact that's had on people's lives.

Q: What are 3 things about apprenticeships that people might not know? 

Firstly, an apprenticeship is open for all ages so it's not necessarily just a young people's initiative. That's something that really needs to be addressed and addressed quite urgently. If you were to speak to somebody of an age such as myself, 50, people think that an apprenticeship is a young people's initiative. 

Secondly,  there is also an education piece that needs to be done in terms of what sectors are involved. So if you speak to my dad then university was the only thing to go for because an apprentice was just a car mechanic or something like that. It covers most sectors and roles you can think of. 

Finally, it is a real job. If you have an apprenticeship, you're learning on the job, you're getting an educational qualification even up to a degree level, but then you're also earning money at the same time. So you don't leave an apprenticeship with a £60,000 debt as you would if you went to university. 

Q: There has been an increase in sector talk recently around the use of AI to support. What role does technology play in how Pathway Group supports people and how can tech make supporting people easier?

Tech is obviously very new. I'm not really a tech savvy guy but the organisation is in terms of the way we use various platforms and how we utilise tech. Even within our initiatives such as videos on YouTube that we've been doing for quite a while, so we're really embracing tech.  We are really embracing the use of things such as Chat GPT. 

The Pathway Group has a number of e-learning programs, videos and online support. Also looking at the end user as well. Does the individual have the necessary tech equipment and  knowledge of what tech is? 

In terms of making it easier in terms of delivery, the use of tech tools will make it easier in terms of the time it will take. If your frontline adviser uses tech it will free up their time to provide even more support and better support for the individual. I really think the support will improve. By using tech as well there will be that consistency and that accuracy so you'll have more of a consistent provision and more of a consistent offer and delivery for the customer as well.

It will improve education, it will improve training through that time benefit I mentioned and through that efficiency.  It will also improve through that upskilling piece. If you're looking at apprenticeships, for example, if an apprenticeship provider and a training provider utilise tech efficiently, then it will improve their provision as well and improve the apprenticeship and in turn hopefully have less of a dropout rate as well. 

In terms of the challenges, I think there'll be an issue around equity and people having access to AI and the equipment. That's going to be challenging because that has an unfair advantage for those that are most in need against those who are more privileged and again, providing them with better job opportunities or better upskilling opportunities because they necessarily don't have access to those tools.  

I think there might be an issue around an over reliance on tech as well, so we don't have that important human interaction. Finally, there's the biggest risk which the government talks about a lot and this is the use of AI at a really high level and the potential for misuse.

Q: When you are not focused on apprenticeships, what do you enjoy doing outside of your role to keep a healthy work-life balance? 

I'm quite heavily involved in field hockey and have been for years. I play a bit of veteran’s hockey now for a local club but prior to that played at quite a high level.  I’m also doing quite a bit of coaching as well - coaching youngsters but also coaching at a high level for a club in London. 

But I also like football. I'm an avid Manchester United fan, so I go to Old Trafford quite a bit. The rest of the time is spending time with family and friends and socialising. I'm quite a sociable type of person and have got quite a strong family and friends circle.

Q: If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in the sector to improve outcomes for the people it supports, what would you do?

I'm just presuming here, and it's a total assumption of mine, Damien, but I think you might have previously got a lot of people saying they would want an increase in funding so I haven't gone down that route. 

I want to bring it back to the work that we do with the Multicultural Friendship Alliance and the other initiatives. The change I would make is all about that equity and accessibility of opportunity for the most disadvantaged and those most in need. I think there's a real danger of people missing out, whether that's within various groups or cohorts, multicultural individuals, or whether it's demographic such as that North South divide etc.  

That includes access to training and access to good work that improves social mobility for those that are most marginalised. Because we're missing out on a lot of individuals who have that skill, who have that knowledge, who have that intelligence, but don't really get that opportunity.

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