Debrett's chief warns bosses over nepotism in talent pipeline

31 March 2015 -


Research shows firms are risking future diversity of business leaders, at time when connections are more important than ever for securing work experience

Jermaine Haughton

Job opportunities for talented but underprivileged young workers are as limited as they were in the 18th Century, according to a new report from coaching and publishing firm the Debrett’s Foundation. Raising a red flag to bosses about the importance of hiring talent on the basis of merit, the report found that almost three quarters (72%) of children from privileged backgrounds freely admitted to using family connections to secure internships.

Work placements ranging from one week to one year in duration have become an increasingly crucial means for employers to test out young workers by providing them with career experience – but without a long-term commitment to hire those workers and pay their wages and National Insurance contributions. Debrett’s found that the average starter takes on seven unpaid placements before securing a full time job – while 10% said they had got the roles they wanted only after completing an exhaustive 15 internships.

Debretts chief executive Joanne Milner told City AM that the need to have internships is not new, but they are “much more important” in the current climate. “Those who come from advantaged backgrounds are more aware of what’s out there,” she said. “They have social capital and tend to know a lot of people.”

The firm’s survey of 3,000 people in the 16 to 25 age bracket and a further 2,000 aged 30 or over found that:

A quarter of young people feel the process of gaining internships in Britain is “unfair”

Another 25% sample think that applicants with double-barrelled surnames have better chances of gaining placements

One in five believe that the type of school they attended is affecting their ability to secure internships

One in six feel that accent was a significant factor

“These findings reveal securing the right work experience placement is difficult – but considerably more so if young people don’t have the right connections,” Milner said. “While nepotism isn’t any more widespread than it was in the past, it has a greater impact today. When there are so many candidates for the top graduate jobs it follows that those with the best experience have a better chance of securing them.”

With the world’s leading financial, media and legal firms based in London, the report found that internships in the capital will consist of one third (32%) of career starters who have attended private schools, compared to just 15% of underprivileged children. Finances play a vital role here, according to the study – with 47% of poorer children saying they didn’t apply for work experience in London because it was too expensive.

Similarly, employers seem to be lacklustre in offering support to young and emerging prospects, with one in five young jobseekers admitting they were not paid anything during their work placements. Meanwhile, one in 10 received only travel and lunch expenses. According to The Sutton Trust, a six-month internship in London would typically cost more than £5,500, excluding transport.

Milner added: “I think people in Britain care about meritocracy but all the evidence is very bad – people who don’t have those connections are not getting on the career ladder. We’re actually going backwards.” In conclusion, she warned: “We don’t want Intern Britain to have a negative impact on the diversity of future leaders and people of achievement in this country.”

Established in 1769, the Debretts Foundation is a charitable trust set up by the venerable handbook of British social etiquette, to ensure high achievers are able to progress from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For more thoughts on why diverse recruitment is essential for ensuring that leaders have the right people for their firms, read page 10 of CMI’s recent Future Forecast report.

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