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Social mobility: the need for ‘more’

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 17 Nov 2022

Inspired by Sam Friedman’s 2021 report into social mobility in the civil service, Navigating the Labyrinth, we spoke with an esteemed panel about social mobility across both central and local government, and in wider society.

At a time when both the wider public are struggling to pay their bills and organisations are struggling to fill their positions with the right, diverse talent, there’s a real driver for harnessing social mobility as an effective solution, and for the Government and the public sector to lead by example. Let’s see where we’re at in this journey, what more we can do, and how practically we can all impact change for the better below.

Social mobility in government today

We were joined by two leaders in this space: Justine Greening, former minister of women and equalities, and Sarah Atkinson, CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF).

In Justine’s eyes, the report being commissioned shows the need for change has been recognised for social mobility, which she feels is ‘as important as climate change’.

However, the change within government has been slow, as Sue commented that ‘only 18% of the senior civil service are from low socio-economic backgrounds – the same figure it was in 1967’. There are particular areas where opportunity is lacking more than others as well – in London and the South East especially, and in Government departments and roles that are actually influencing policy – surely an area where lived experience is key.

‘Studied neutrality’ sums up the attributes that are desired within the civil service – things like ‘emotional detachment’ and elocution are the kinds of barriers that are inhibiting those from diverse backgrounds to be attracted and selected into the service. Thankfully, these are beginning to be addressed. As Justine says, there is a huge opportunity for Government departments to take the initiative and be an inspiration for others in the wider sectors across the UK here.

The practical implementations of better social mobility

We learned about the work Clancy Dawson from Spectra – who deliver the Care Leaver Covenant (CLC) – does in creating meaningful opportunities for young people in her role as a progression coordinator. CLC uniquely work on creating signatory’s and partnerships across both the public and private sectors, and also work directly with the young people who need their assistance most – with Owayes Ayad, a beneficiary of the work CLC does, also joining us on the panel.

With CLCs help, Owayes has gone from homelessness to a first year law with politics and international relations student at Northeastern University London, who is also working part time at the civil service. He is now actively involved in supporting and giving back to young people – mentoring, volunteering and advising them in the communities that need it most, showing how those learnt attributes of resilience, determination and problem solving can really benefit the next generation.

How recruitment can influence social mobility

Alex Fleming, regional president of Northern Europe at Adecco, shared the findings of their Workforce of the Future report into post-pandemic labour markets and, in particular, three main areas both the Government and employers can have an impact. Apart from accurately addressing the ageing workforce who can still provide so much value to organisations, as well as improving investment into deprived local areas, and from organisations generally in skills development (which is lower in the UK than most of Europe), it is in the younger demographic where there is the greatest opportunity.

However, young people accounted for about two thirds of the total fall in employment post-pandemic. Their unemployment rate is four times higher than the rest of the population and, despite the record number of vacancies during 2022, there are rising numbers of young people who are not in education or training and are economically inactive.

Better recruitment (and training) in processes, policies and practices can have a huge impact here.

To make change, getting attraction, retention and engagement with underrepresented communities right is so important, according to our equality, diversity and inclusion consultant, Louise Darkwah. This can ensure people not only ‘get in’ to organisations, but also ‘get on’ within them as well – something we did recently with a recruitment brief for Homes England which involved the targeting of those from a lower socio-economic background (you can find this on our website).

The pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for candidates to search out more values-driven organisations. The Purpose Coalition (Justine Greening’s network of organisations devoted to improve social mobility), and the SMF’s Social Mobility Index of organisations who are promoting best practice, are just two examples that organisations can be proud to be part of in their recruitment drives – often the differentiator in a competitive candidate market.

But we need more – more from the private sector, and more especially from the public sector and the Government. Social mobility brings diverse, energetic talent to employers – who wouldn’t want to do that? Get your approach right in this area, and we can improve systemic societal issues and the skill shortage crisis gripping the UK.

See the highlights from our webinar on Penna’s website. 

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna