Social mobility - a different kind of diversity?

Posted on 30 June 2017 by Åsa Waring

When we talk about diversity in the workplace, we often assume that this is limited to gender, race, disability or the other protected characteristics. Work to increase diversity in these areas is hugely important (as we have commented here and here for example) but diversity and inclusion is wider than that. A report published earlier this week by the Social Mobility Commission, an independent body that monitors progress on social mobility, found that there has been little progress on social mobility over the last 20 years, including in our working lives. Without deep seated reform, it says, division and inequality is set to widen.

The report looks at four key areas, or life stages, including early years, schools, young people and working lives, and makes recommendations to the government on improving the socio-economic divide at each of those stages. 

In relation to working lives, the report considers job creation, low pay, skills, regional differences and access to the top jobs. It highlights the decrease in secure employment in recent years, leading to less opportunity for progression and upskilling, and points to forms of self-employment and zero-hours or temporary contracts which do not offer employment rights or a guaranteed income. This is an area we will soon hear more about with the imminent publication of the Taylor Review.

In addition, the report examines the development of apprenticeships, which, with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy this year, has put greater responsibility on employers to develop apprenticeships into career paths, some of which were previously only available to graduates. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in internships, many of which are unpaid and/or only accessible through informal networks, thus often unattainable for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

And while the report finds that, over the last two decades, a large proportion of middle-skilled jobs have been replaced by low-skilled jobs, there has also been significant growth in the number of highly skilled and well-paid jobs, and in particular in the earning potential of these jobs (as well as a near trebling in the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers). However, despite some progress, the highest-paid and best-paid jobs are still viewed as being deeply elitist. 

Some employers have started to tackle this, with many now collecting data on the socio-economic backgrounds of their applicants and workforces, putting social mobility on the agenda. Alongside this, the Social Mobility Employers Index was launched earlier this year to benchmark best practice across sectors. Believed to be the first in the world, last week the Index announced the top participating UK employers who have taken the most action to improve social mobility in the workplace.

The report concludes that the government needs to do more, including working with employers, to ensure that good job and career opportunities are available to everyone regardless of their background. It recommends, among other things, a national drive with employers to improve career progression, underpinned by increased investment in skills policies, including high quality apprenticeships. Recommendations also include making socio-economic diversity in professional employment a priority by encouraging all large employers to make access and progression fairer.

As with other aspects of diversity, increasing the talent pool to encompass employees from all backgrounds, including at the top, is not just the right thing to do but it also makes business sense. While research has shown that companies with more gender and ethnically diverse workforces perform better financially, extending diversity more broadly by attracting and retaining people of wide ranging socio-economic backgrounds, experiences and opinions is also likely to increase competitive advantage.