Social mobility in the UK took an important step forward with the release of a new report showing how businesses large and small can break down the inequality of opportunity facing young people.
The Big Issue co-founder Lord John Bird hosted the launch of the report, entitled “Financial Services and Social Mobility: Powering Up The Talent Chain” in a packed Committee Room Two at the House of Lords. Speakers included Bird himself, plus Justine Greening MP – a key architect of the Social Mobility Pledge, in which businesses sign up to become accredited employers who commit to accessing and progressing talent from all backgrounds.
“A year ago tomorrow we launched the Social Mobility Pledge aimed at getting more companies to give more opportunities to more young people,” said Greening. “I wanted companies to open up the doors.”
The new report highlights the work of financial services giant Standard Life Aberdeen, which was one of the first companies to sign the pledge.
The investment company have been at the forefront of evolving recruitment and training practice in a bid to expand the talent pool – acknowledging that while talent may be spread evenly, opportunity is not while also opening doors to young people who may not have achieved top grades at school and providing on the job training.
In his speech, Bird challenged more businesses to get on board. “We are not going to get anywhere if we have to rely on the government, charities, or social entrepreneurs like me. We are not going to get anywhere unless we bring in big business,” he said.
“They must realise the enormous social echo they create when they bring people in to the workplace. When a major company jumps in it makes the ripples get bigger and bigger. The Social Mobility Pledge is going to refresh parts of British society that really need it.”
But Bird also challenged the businesses signing up to the pledge – businesses that already employ almost two million people in this country – to go one step further.
He suggested that ex-offenders were another group of prospective employees facing a tougher task to take the first step into employment, and recommended “extending social mobility into prisons, to people who have ended up in the sticky stuff.”
With social mobility having regressed since the 1990s, and the generation entering the workforce the first in modern history to have worse prospects than their parents according to the Resolution Foundation, action on social mobility is urgently needed.
Sandy MacDonald, Standard Life Aberdeen’s head of corporate sustainability, agreed.
“We all remember at some point in our careers when someone gave us a break or an opportunity. But some people find those breaks easier to access. The ripple effect can bring hope back into a family, back into a community,” he said.
“As a global investment company we have a responsibility to invest in our society. We can help build social mobility. If our sector, which is rich and influential, can’t shift the dial I do wonder which sector can.”
Greening challenged business to be aware of “unconscious bias” that means they are not always “fishing in the widest talent pool.” She suggested more companies open up their doors to offer work experience opportunities to give more young people a sense of what life in different workplaces is like.