Why British business needs more social mobility [New research]

17 November 2016 -


Jobs, career opportunities and education are at the heart of the worsening social mobility problem, according to the Government’s latest State of the Nation report

Jermaine Haughton

Despite advancements in technology, the introduction of a number of educational initiatives and an influx of university and apprenticeship opportunities for people of all backgrounds over past two decades, the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2016 report found that many British people believe that having the right social background and/or family connections in business and education are key to succeeding in the UK.

In its survey, some 45% of respondents thought those from poorer backgrounds had less opportunity to earn high wages than their peers. Meanwhile, 55% of adults thought children from privileged backgrounds were more likely to get a place at university than those from less wealthy homes.

The Social Mobility Commission, which is an independent statutory body which examines what is happening to social mobility in the UK, reports that top professions have become increasingly less representative of society than selective universities.

The organisation warns that Britain remains “a deeply elitist nation where the chance of getting a well-paid job in a top profession is still strongly correlated with social background”.

With the poorest individuals finding it hardest to progress, people born in the 1980s becoming the first post-war cohort not to start their working years with higher incomes than their immediate predecessors and millions of workers - particularly women - being trapped in low pay, the social mobility issues threaten to harm the economy and businesses.  

If the current trends continues, with only one in eight children from low-income backgrounds likely to become a high-income earner as an adult, the study predicts nine million low-skilled people could be chasing four million jobs, with a shortage of three million workers to fill 15 million high-skilled jobs by 2022.

Commission chair and former Labour minister Alan Milburn said: “Britain has a deep social mobility problem and the growing sense that we have become an 'us and them' society - where a few unfairly hoard power and wealth - is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.

"It is no surprise that populism of right and of left is on the march when a growing number of people feel like they are losing out unfairly. That is why addressing social mobility should be the holy grail of public policy and the cause which unites government, business and communities to action."

Calling for new thinking and new approaches to deal with these deep structural problems that face the UK’s young people, the commission has proposed a number of structural changes over the next ten years to the education and employment system to develop greater opportunities for those from low income families.

Poor careers advice and work experience mean that even with the same GCSE results, one-third more poorer children drop out of post-16 education than their better-off classmates.

Therefore, the commission recommended that all independent schools and universities provide high-quality careers advice, support with university applications and to share their business networks with state schools.

Moreover, the idea of repurposing the National Citizen Service was suggested, to deliver an opportunity fund so that all children between the ages of 14 and 18 can have a quality work experience or extracurricular activity.

Read more: Business needs to do more to help young people moving into the workplace

The survey’s authors therefore made two suggestions.

Firstly, the Government should encourage sixth-form provision in areas where it is lacking and give schools a central role in supporting FE colleges to deliver the Skills Plan, focused on filling skills gaps.

Secondly, the body advised that the Institute of Apprenticeships should impose robust quality criteria for apprenticeships and not allow schemes that do not meet these criteria to be called apprenticeships.

Other recommendations to boosting social mobility include: encouraging large UK employers to develop strategies to provide their low-skilled workforces with opportunities for career progression, moving people from low pay to living pay through a Second Chance Career Fund to help older workers retrain, and banning unpaid internships.

In September 2016, the Chartered Management Institute and EY Foundation published its Age of Uncertainty report into young people's experiences of and attitudes to work.

The report, based on a survey of 1,510 16-to-21-year-olds in the UK conducted by Populus, finds that a lack of connections, a steady decline in school-secured work experience, low self-confidence and an apparent lack of visibility of local employers, all have the potential to impact on young people’s working prospects in the UK.

Petra Wilton, CMI's director of strategy, said: "As today's 'State of the Nation' report shows, young people’s entry into elite professions is still most likely determined by their social background.  CMI's recent research with the EY Foundation showed how 63% of young people aspire to leadership roles, but they have limited access to the world of work, with only their parents and teachers influencing their career choices.  

“Our report called for a school-to-work agenda backed by employers, to help ensure that all young people can reach their aspirations. By working far more closely with employers, schools can showcase new routes into work such as degree apprenticeships. They can also offer young people earlier opportunities to develop practical team leading and management skills that improve confidence and employability for all."

Find out more about CMI’s Age of Uncertainty report

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