HR’s Role in Boosting Social Mobility

Paul Modley
Alexander Mann Solutions
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In its latest social mobility report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the poorest pupils in the UK were more unhappy and discouraged than in any other developed country other than Turkey: fewer than one in six feel ‘resilient’, ‘satisfied with their lives’ and ‘integrated at school’, compared with an OECD average of one in four.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that the upper echelons of business are disproportionately filled with those from more privileged backgrounds: the Equality Trust highlights a glaring correlation between social mobility and education. However, by failing to engage those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, businesses risk missing out on a significant chunk of available talent and the unique skills and perspectives that those from more difficult backgrounds may bring. And by reassessing where they source candidates, barriers to entry and how they engage with emerging talent, HR leaders can help build socially diverse pipelines for the future.     

I’ve previously written on the importance of social mobility in business and the fact that - while it is relativity easy to climb the career ladder once you get a foot on the first rung – taking the first step is often the most difficult.     

When I worked for the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics Organising Committee, where we were tasked with recruiting talent from the areas surrounding the Olympic Park, it was clear that even within our capital city there is huge social disparity. Underprivileged areas we were sourcing from sat alongside the glass towers of Canary Wharf. But while overcoming geographic barriers is easy, crossing cultural barriers can be much more difficult.  

Social Mobility Emerging Talent

In order to engage, and inspire, emerging talent from lower socio-economic groups, businesses must promote the message that these opportunities are for you, you do have the skills that we’re looking for and this is an organisation where you can build a successful career. However, there is no escaping the fact that this is easier said than done.

The subtle messages that potential candidates are subjected to build a picture which brings with it connotations about company culture and wider brand: whether that be through consumer marketing collateral, imagery used on careers sites or the language used in job ads. With this in mind, HR strategists, hiring managers and marketing teams must ensure that they promote messages of inclusivity throughout the entire recruitment process – and invite feedback to measure sentiment so that elements can be adjusted in real-time if they miss the mark.

When targeting those from lower socio-economic groups, it also worth revaluating where messages should be directed, and engaging parents, schools and community groups who can then become advocates for your brand.  

Careers advice in schools can be patchy and inconsistent to say the least and the most forward-thinking brands are proactively going into schools to share the great opportunities that are available in their sector. Rolls-Royce, for example, has taken the idea of early targeting to what might be its most logical extreme, sending engineers out to schools to talk to children as young as seven. This type of face-to-face engagement not only inspires young minds, but also helps to guide young people in terms of subject choices while still in education.

In her book, Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes, Professor Diane Reay outlines how we are still educating different social classes for different functions in society. Pupils in the more working class comprehensives get less money per head, higher levels of teacher turnover and more supply teachers. Consequently, those on free school meals and receiving pupil premium are 27% less likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths.

Historically, lower academic achievement would have put the brakes on future professional success. However, the emergence of new routes into the workplace means that this is no longer necessarily the case. Our recent white paper, The Apprenticeship Levy – How to turn a major social change (or an unwanted tax) into a robust talent strategy, details how 71% of employers agree that apprenticeships are now creating a new route into the workplace to supplement or rival graduate intake. And brands such as Santander are leading the way in promoting the benefits of apprenticeships – which don’t have academic barriers to entry - to potential applicants and parents alike.  

While it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to ensure that careers advice is consistent across the board, and that every child has the same chance to realise their professional potential, HR leaders can help to close the gap by taking a look at outdated recruitment strategies. And by doing so, they can open their businesses up to the widest possible pool of talent.  

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