A fresh take on social mobility in emerging talent


20 Mar 2017

A fresh take on social mobility in emerging talent

Penna and The Student Room recently decided to look more closely and carry out bespoke research on the issue of social mobility in the emerging talent space. Having worked for years in recruitment solutions with a variety of different clients, I have found that in recent years social mobility has moved further and further up the priority list of emerging talent employers. I was personally interested to find out what measures emerging talent recruiters need to consider, in order to  improve social mobility recruitment in their organisations.

As a leading provider of recruitment solutions for early careers recruiters and beyond, Penna found that more and more clients, were asking ‘how can we reach candidates from a wide variety of different backgrounds?’  Penna wanted to partner with The Student Room on this project because it is one of the largest and most highly regarded student communities used by over 70% of all students every year.  We started to ask; ‘what challenges do those from a socially disadvantaged background face when finding a job on graduation?’ and ‘How do those from a socially disadvantaged background look for a job after graduation?’ We thought about: ‘What barriers do they have to overcome? How can those from a disadvantaged background improve their access to choice and opportunities?’

I was pleased to organise an event recently for Penna’s clients and contacts, aimed at sharing the results of our research with The Student Room and sharing best practice in social mobility. We were delighted to have input from our clients Bank of England and Aviva who gave talks on social mobility actions in their own organisations. We also had insights from a group of student panellists who had come through Career Ready – a fantastic organisation that raises employment chances for young people around the UK. The stories from our panel were so inspiring. One particular panellist couldn’t get an interview at McDonalds. But since going through the Career Ready programme, he now has a challenging and rewarding career investigating financial crime.

Together, Penna and The Student Room put together a survey which asked second and final year undergraduates from a wide variety of different backgrounds:

- What they look for in a graduate role

- Methods they use for finding a graduate job

- Who their biggest role models are

- Skills they have learned and improved through work experience

- Challenges they have faced in the search for a graduate job

- A variety of demographic questions

A stark example of a lack of social mobility in emerging talent is in some creative industries such as TV and broadcasting. Tony Hall, BBC Director General (March 2017) recently pointed out: ‘broadcasting in particular remains a relationship-based, ‘who you know’ industry. Too often, employers offer placements and internships through networks or contacts. Of course, this marginalises those who don’t have connections, especially those outside the big cities, and it favours the well-connected and well-off from the South East of England … A sector that, instead of being a force for social mobility, is too often a source of social exclusion.’  Tony Hall’s full speech can be found here

For years now, graduate employers have understood the importance of and taken action on general diversity policy in their recruitment processes, to varying degrees of success. But what about social mobility? Wikipedia defines diversity as: ‘The quality of being diverse or different; difference or unlikeness.’ I like to think of diversity as being simply, everyone.

With graduate recruitment budgets often being squeezed and recruitment teams stretched, it is easy for employers to fall in to the trap of regularly recruiting from the same group of universities and colleges.  Employers are increasingly waking up to the fact that they may not be casting their net far enough. Social mobility is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘The ability to move between different levels in society or employment.’ Emerging talent needs the platform to shine through, no matter what background the individual themselves comes from.

Social mobility could refer to those from a plethora of different backgrounds. For example, those from a single parent family, someone who is a carer for an older relative, someone who has to work to support their family (as well as study), someone who is from a low income household or someone for whom English is not their first language.  The challenges that young people face can be vast and varied.

When putting together the research questions, we quickly realised that defining those from a social mobility background is not easy. We needed to identify a way of teasing out those from a more disadvantaged background. We settled on free school meals as an indicator of possible home circumstance and also we asked whether the student’s parents had gone to University.  We thought that if neither parent had gone to University, this in itself would present a challenge to the young person as potentially their likely closest influencers wouldn’t have experience or insight of having attended University.

Our target group in the research was final year and second year students. We asked ourselves; ‘If we are talking to those who are already at University, is that truly a diverse picture?’ We decided to focus on this particular group of students because a) we wanted to highlight the process of applying for a graduate job specifically and b) with the advent of tuition fees payable after graduation coupled with the fact that The Student Room has such a vast and varied audience, on balance we thought that we were reaching out to a really wide group.

We received over a thousand completed responses to our research questionnaire, sent out to the The Student Room community. The key themes which arose from our report were:

- Identifying students from a disadvantaged background is difficult

- They are less likely to follow the ‘normal’ routes into a graduate scheme

- They’ll feel more comfortable about fitting in if they hear from ‘someone like them’

- They are more likely to have practical paid work experience

- Advertising blind CV screening may make you more attractive as an employer                

- Early career guidance could lessen the gap during assessment.

If you would like to read the full report, please email me: nia.exon@penna.com

Our report has a useful section on hints and tips for employers which hopefully addresses some of the issues raised in our report.

I’m pleased to say that Tony Hall and the BBC are taking action: ‘it’s part of our mission to represent, and be representative of, the whole of the country. It’s part of our public purpose to find and train the best talent on behalf of the sector - whoever and wherever they are.’ They are doing this through mentoring and ambassador programmes such as BBC North Young Ambassadors, Radio 1 Academy and increasing their apprenticeships to 400 by 2018. Many apprentices in the BBC go into local radio stations up and down the country – a well known hot bed for talent.

More and more employers are taking positive, exciting, meaningful action on increasing social mobility. Something which as recruiters, I think we should celebrate. Aviva for example partners with UpReach – an organisation which supports students from less advantaged backgrounds to secure top jobs.  Aviva provides mentoring opportunities. Aviva also scrutinises data throughout the assessment process to ensure that those from a less advantaged background are not adversely impacted.  Meanwhile, the Bank of England is targeting more and more Universities in London (not just a select few). They are also carrying out unconscious bias training for interviewers.

Employers need to continually strive to break down barriers to entry for emerging talent, whatever their industry. Post Brexit Britain needs to absolutely make the most of the talent that it has, no matter what the background of that person. Complacency in social mobility is not an option.  

Nia Exon, Senior Client Partner