Five simple steps to improve social mobility

I was genuinely saddened by the news this weekend that Alan Milburn and others were resigning from the board of the Social Mobility Commission. I’ve had interactions with this work for the last seven or eight years and I’ve been a big champion of their agenda.

If there is one good thing that comes from this, I hope it is a renewed focus and energy to address the topic. At the Skills Summit last week I was really pleased to hear the Minister for Education Justine Greening make it a central point of her proposals. But talk on its own won’t change a thing.

I personally believe that businesses and employers can do so much more to drive the social mobility agenda forward, without the need for Government to lead the way. So if you’re serious about putting your effort and energy behind change, here’s a few simple steps you can take.

1. Check out the data. There’s a brilliant social mobility map from the Sutton Trust that you can find here and the State of the Nation 2017 report from the Social Mobility Commission (here) to understand the make up of the geographic area in which you operate. Until you understand the problem you’re going to struggle to fix it.

2. Review your approach to new talent. Do you really need a graduate? And if so, do they really need to come from those universities? Are your recruitment processes stuck in the past? Do they really focus on finding the best possible talent? What are your obligations to the communities within which you operate? Quit whingeing and get behind the apprenticeship levy and make it work.

3. Build relationships with local schools and colleges. Providing opportunities isn’t enough, you’ve got to show that the opportunities are really available – and obtainable. Building a long-term commitment to relationships with local education providers helps not only support the education of all, but also can help raise aspiration.

4. Create sustainable careers. Not only in terms of fair pay and benefits, but training opportunities, security of employment and opportunities for progression and advancement. Mobility is exactly that, it isn’t about charity but opportunity. And that opportunity doesn’t stop when you make the hire.

5. Start to measure. Like every other aspect of diversity within the workplace, you need to understand the construct of your workforce and start to target improvements. We’re more familiar with measuring other areas of diversity (and I’d argue more comfortable with asking the question), but there are some good indicators that can be used some of which you can find here.

And of course, if you want to chat about it or think that we can do some work together, you can always give me a shout.

Reasons to be cheerful

  1. We’re talking about gender pay – After a week of headlines about the BBC, this might not feel like a positive but the fact we are even having the conversation is. It is very easy to single out the BBC, but I wouldn’t mind betting that the details of their commercial rivals wouldn’t look any better – and potentially could look worse. And that’s before we turn our attention to other entertainment sectors – like sport. We have the introduction of gender pay reporting this year, which will also undoubtedly make headlines of the wrong sort. And whilst no-one can reasonably defend the differences – at least they’re starting to be highlighted, discussed and rectified.
  2. There’s a shift in routes into employment – As someone who has been banging on about this topic for the past six or seven years, I genuinely believe we are seeing a shift in the perception of routes into the labour market. The increasing cost of university education (of variable quality) combined with an improvement in the breadth and range of apprenticeships and more creative thinking by employers is starting to provide more routes and opportunities for young people.
  3. The immigration debate is getting more realistic – OK, I know this one is a little bit sensitive, but the rhetoric on immigration has changed substantially over the past months and there is an increasing understanding that immigration is necessary for the successful functioning of the British economy. Not just in terms of the “professional” classes, but across all labour groups. The end result of Brexit on the labour market isn’t known yet, but if you listen to the messages coming out from both sides of the political debate, there is an increasing consensus.
  4. The robots aren’t taking over the world – Well not yet, at least. I remember watching Tomorrow’s World in the 1970’s and 80’s and being fascinated by the fact that in my thirties I’d be travelling in some sort of hovercraft, whilst my robot workforce cared for my every need. Truth is, I’m in my forties, driving a Skoda and still having to do the washing up. There is no doubt that technology is advancing and in a good way, we just need to channel out the noise made by conference organisers and “gurus” who want to sensationalise the natural progression of technology in the workplace for their own economic ends.
  5. We’re having a better conversation about work – As I wrote last week, I believe the Taylor Review is a thoughtful contribution to the debate about working practices in the UK. We need to get beyond the “ban zero hours contracts” rhetoric and start to understand how we provide a balance between protection and flexibility. We need to start understanding how our “demand” as consumers impacts on the labour model that employers are increasingly needing to explore. If we want good and services around the clock at the tap of a screen, that requires us to think about our workforce planning. It cannot be without good protection and support, but the answer will only come out of discussion and thought – not from trying to roll back time.

HR, job creation and an economic imperative

How focussed are you on job creation? How often do you have conversations with your Board about growth and opportunity? How often are you talking about investment in the future? Not only the capital investment, but investment in skills?

If it isn’t on your agenda, then I suggest you take a moment with yourself, take a deep breath and start to have the conversation each and every day.

We all know the state of the economy. We all know that unemployment is at the highest level for the best part of two decades. We know that youth unemployment is a social tragedy. And we know that the Government is ill-equipped and ill prepared to deal with it.

So who is going to make the difference?

Well the answer is that business is partly responsible for getting us into this mess, and we are the only people who can get us out of it. And we aren’t going to do that by focussing on cost cutting, rationalisation, downsizing and offshoring. Nor are we going to, in the long run, add value to our business by doing so.

I know that I run the risk of being called naïve here. But is chasing short-term share holder return really less naïve than building long-term structural value in your business? I think not.

We need to be thinking creatively, innovatively about ways in which we can bring new skills into our businesses, the ways in which we can train a future generation of workers and leaders to safeguard the long-term prosperity of our businesses, of our communities and of the economy as a whole.

That means investment, but it does not mean throwing cash away. Investment is about long-term value creation, which in turn provides long-term shareholder return and long-term security and prosperity for our existing and future workforces.

Think about the opportunities that exist, think about the creation of quality internships, think about taking advantage of apprenticeships, stop moaning about the lack of graduate skills and start thinking about what your business can do to train and develop the future generation. Think about taking a risk.

HR has to, HAS TO, take a lead on this. We have to be championing the needs of our businesses, being future focussed, being (dare I say it) strategic. We need to define the imperatives, formulate the convincing arguments and we need to be making them day in and day out. We are supremely placed to not only make the case, but to be the catalyst for economic regeneration.

Large, small, medium-sized, in the public, the private or the third sector. We can all play a role in this, we all need to play a role in this. Because if we don’t, then who will?

The opportunity is there, the incentive is there. The forward thinking, the innovative, the true leaders know and understand this. Success is part risk, part planning. Put the plans in place and take the risk. Step up and take the challenge.

Whether you agree or disagree, I’ll be expanding on this argument, along with Alison Chisnell Group HR Director at Informa Business Information at #TruLondon in February. We’d welcome your contribution here or there.