How can companies move the dial on social mobility?
By Jo Faragher on 30 October 2023
According to the latest ‘State of the Nation’ report from the Social Mobility Commission, young people in the UK today are in danger of being worse off than their predecessors. The SMC’s chair, Alun Francis, claimed the “social mobility story” wasn’t getting any better, and challenged policymakers to come up with fresh ideas to bridge the gap between those from privileged and non-privileged backgrounds. “We have to ask the question: ‘are those at the bottom going to be better off than their parents’ generation?’,” he said.
Another report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies on Intergenerational Mobility in the UK found that children from poorer households have been finding it harder than they did 40 years ago to move into higher income brackets – a situation made worse by years of hardly any real-terms growth in wages. The figures from the SMC are stark: in education, people whose parents had degrees are far more likely – 64% against 18% – to get a degree than those whose parents had no qualifications; and in the workplace, adults with lower working class parents are about three times as likely to be in a working-class occupation themselves compared with adults with higher professional parents.
Hard to define
So why isn’t the picture changing? “Social mobility is a difficult one to solve,” says Joe Seddon, founder of social enterprise Zero Gravity, which links young people with opportunities they may have historically thought inaccessible. He started the organisation with £200 from his student loan having defied the odds to make it to Oxford University from a low-income household. “It’s not a protected characteristic itself and is more intangible than other strands of diversity – you don’t walk around with a sign saying ‘I grew up from a disadvantaged background’. It’s hard to define too – someone can live in a metropolitan area and have access to a good school or they might live in rural Wales and be the first in their family to go to university.”
One of the drivers employers sometimes miss is the link between recruiting and retaining people from a socially diverse background and performance, he adds. “This is about more than corporate social responsibility; you’re finding people whose background might have meant they had not reached their full potential, and if you support them to do that, you increase productivity,” he explains. Limiting recruitment to a restricted number of ‘elite’ universities or other (formerly) common hiring tactics “bakes in” that social mobility gap as well as reducing your potential pool of candidates, Seddon adds. Companies that measure social mobility, such as PwC and KPMG, are now identifying ways they can support these groups and benefit the wider organisation.
Real role models
Reading-based law firm Boyes Turner is tackling the social mobility puzzle in a number of ways, including a number of programmes aimed at breaking down social mobility barriers into a profession that has traditionally been considered one for those of privilege. Kim Milan, senior partner, was the first in her family to do A-levels, then university and finally law school. “Ensuring inclusive and sustainable career progression requires commitment at an industry and professional level,” she says. “Attracting a wider and more diverse workforce into key professions can require a mindset shift around culture which is why industry-wide collaborations are key to driving real change.”
Milan believes visible role models such as herself are crucial. She adds: Being able to see someone who has trod the path ahead of you, has broken down perceived and real barriers shows what’s possible. Colleagues from less represented backgrounds – especially in law where there’s an assumption around privilege and access – need to be able to look up and see themselves in the most senior roles. That’s powerful.” This is the reason she returns to her own story when recruiting and working with younger colleagues. “I know about being first in the family to go to uni let alone a career in the law, feeling ill-equipped for training contract interviews or imposter issues arising when it comes to promotions. So they feel that allyship too, knowing they can access those opportunities. They can navigate what is ultimately societal conditioning and know it’s possible for them too.”
Learning and development can help companies build a sense of belonging and ensure they retain a more socially diverse intake. But first, it’s important that they recognise some of the barriers those from less privileged backgrounds might have faced. “Employees from lower income backgrounds often face limitations in accessing quality education and development opportunities, which can limit their career growth before it even begins. This not only refers to access to state vs fee-paying education, but also the disparities in quality of education in lower vs higher income areas,” explains Myra Khanna, founder and CEO of digital coaching platform SAMA. “If used correctly, L&D initiatives are powerful tools for levelling the playing field and supporting employees from lower income backgrounds.” This could come in the form of courses that bridge any skills gaps, tailored programmes that support progression or professional coaching. She adds: “Providing coaching to everyone – not just exec teams – unlocks your people’s full potential and empowers them to progress in their careers more efficiently. Coaching also helps those who have faced adversity due to their background build confidence and stakeholder management skills, boosting self-assurance, and can even assist with network building, through guidance on relationship building, mentorship, and sponsorship opportunities.”
It’s also important not to assume the only educational path someone might take into your business is a degree. Nichola Hay, director of apprenticeship strategy and policy at BPP Education Group, argues that one of the challenges is the perception of academic versus vocational qualifications. Schools do not always promote apprenticeships as a valuable first rung on the career ladder, for example, leaving some students feeling disenfranchised. “To unlock economic growth and social mobility, there needs to be more investment and more skills parity between vocational and academic routes,” she says. “The more individuals look at apprenticeships, the more people we get on the career ladder and we see more efficiency and advancement in the workforce.” During the pandemic, the (already falling) number of apprenticeship starts dropped dramatically, leaving a gaping hole in employers’ skills needs but also meaning many young people have been unable to access the labour market.
“Families with a higher income can afford better opportunities for their children,” she adds. “Apprenticeships mean those who cannot go to university due to finances or because they have caring responsibilities can get a dream role. But a lot more work around careers education is needed from an early age, including teaching staff, parents and businesses.” Vocational routes such as apprenticeships can be a valuable tool not just in terms of helping someone achieve parity with graduates in terms of the roles they apply for, but in opening up access to the labour market for other groups who may have missed acquiring functional skills such as Maths or English for whatever reason. “It’s also about lifelong learning,” insists Hay. “We need to show people it’s OK to get on a train and get off in terms of education. The rise of new industries such as artificial intelligence and the green sector mean many of us will need to retrain anyway.”
Taking a skills-first approach is a good first step, says Aimee Treasure, marketing and D&I director at recruitment company Templeton and Partners, where 36% of staff identify as socially mobile. She says: “Templeton has recruited skills-first since our inception in 1996. We don’t have any requirements for academic qualifications or arbitrary years of experience (which is itself usually discriminatory by age), and instead focus on skills, aptitude and potential.” The company does this by using tangible criteria that measures everyone fairly, while also making accommodations for those that need them, such as remote interviews or access to questions before an interview. “Many of our brilliant staff don’t hold academic qualifications, with some identifying as care leavers and refugees, but all bringing a wealth of skills and experiences to the business,” she adds.
The benefits of socio-economic diversity across a business should not be underestimated, says Treasure. “Diversity of thought is just as important as diversity of physical characteristics, and while the two often intersect, individuals from underprivileged backgrounds have a wealth of knowledge to share with colleagues from different backgrounds, aiding better understanding of diverse consumer groups, connecting corporate actions to real-life community impact, and designing and implementing for the benefit of everyone,” she concludes.
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