Social mobility has rarely been far from the top of the political agenda in Britain in recent years. Yet despite two decades of rhetorical commitment to the cause, Britain is still a deeply divided country.
There remains a stubborn gap in higher education attendance between children from better- and worse-off families, and the top professions continue to recruit disproportionately from a narrow strata of society. Only 6% of doctors, 12% of journalists and 12% of chief executives come from working-class backgrounds. And there is a particular dominance of the privately educated in society’s upper echelons.
Education policies at all ages – from provision of affordable quality pre-school, to initiatives to widen participation at university – can make a difference. But such policies alone will never solve all of the issues.
The problems of social mobility extend far beyond the education system. Even people with the same education fare differently in accessing elite professions depending on their background and progress within these jobs is also related to school type. More broadly, recent research has found a pay-gap equivalent to thousands of pounds difference in annual earnings between those from higher- and lower-class backgrounds employed in the same high status professional occupations.
There is huge scope for employers to take the lead in promoting social mobility over the coming years, particularly while central government is preoccupied with Brexit and local authorities are struggling to do more with less following years of austerity cuts.
By recruiting narrowly from universities, firms risk missing out on a wealth of talented individuals who do not have the traditional academic background associated with future success. Employers such as Grant Thornton, Fujitsu and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) have started to realise this danger and to take action – talking about it at a recent conference my colleagues and I organised.
Skills and potential, not polish
These employers are tackling this issue as they would any other business challenge: by formulating a systematic plan to change their recruitment and progression procedures to ensure that all of the brightest talents out there are given a chance.
For all of its recruitment, the MOJ has recently moved from a competencies-based model focused on traditional markers of talent, such as university performance, to a strengths-based model that considers each individual’s skills and potential, rather than their academic polish. This has been accompanied by outreach activities targeting young people from schools in disadvantaged areas, and schemes to bring those from poorer backgrounds into summer schools and internships.
Mentoring within these programmes builds young people’s confidence and the mentoring continues within the MOJ, with new recruits from non-traditional backgrounds mentored throughout, helping their career progression. Apprenticeship schemes operate within the ministry so that people are able to move from operational roles into policy roles, breaking through ceilings that may otherwise hinder progression of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Grant Thornton also changed its recruitment practice in 2012, removing minimum academic entry requirements and focusing instead on key skills and values. Before, it was all about Russell Group graduates. But the company now considers an applicant’s range of interests and experiences. Trainee recruitment includes bespoke help for the applicants, with mentors assisting throughout – a common theme among these opportunity employers.
Once applicants were in the system, Grant Thornton discovered that the information gleaned at the interview stage was a much better predictor of how people would perform in the firm – much more so than degree attainment or exam scores. Evaluation of performance in the job has also revealed that the recruits who come in without degrees and top exam grades perform just as well within the firm, and their assessed potential going forward is just as high.
It’s a similar story for Fujitsu. The company discovered that most elements in its recruitment process – such as telephone interviews, criteria related to work experience or UCAS points – were redundant. From 2015 on, many of its former recruitment metrics were ditched, including the requirement of a 2:1 degree or above. Instead, applicants are now presented with scenarios, in which current employees from a diverse range of backgrounds present real challenges to be solved. This assesses a candidate’s whole range of skills, not just their ability to take exams.
Steps that work
As a result of their changes, the MOJ, Grant Thornton and Fujitsu are all highly placed in the Social Mobility Employers Index, a benchmarking tool constructed by the Social Mobility Foundation which ranks firms on the actions they are taking to ensure that they are recruiting and progressing talent from all backgrounds. There are some lessons from these top opportunity employers:
Use data to understand recruitment patterns and progression within work for people from different backgrounds.
Reach out to schools and colleges, not just universities, and particularly schools with more disadvantage.
Support those who can influence and help young people – parents, teachers, school leaders, careers advisors.
Mentor recruits from non-traditional backgrounds throughout recruitment and beyond, and help to provide the social capital and knowledge of the triggers for promotion and reward so that they progress within the job.
It has often been said that “talent is everywhere, opportunity is not”. Now it seems many employers are beginning to realise that there is value in changing their recruitment practices to extend opportunity to places it has previously been lacking. This is already good news for social mobility and as the best practice of these firms spreads, more employers can start to do for Britain’s mobility what prime ministers have been promising to do for years.