How digital platforms can be used to bridge the socio-economic divide in the workplace

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 21, 2018
Two UK-based organisations are trying to make it easier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get work without family connections.

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Social inclusion - or the lack of it - is a big issue wherever you happen to be in the world. For example, socio-economic background is a key indicator of future achievement in educational terms and can even dictate future health outcomes.

But it also has a significant impact in relation to employment. One of the challenges faced by many young people from disadvantaged communities is that they and their families simply do not have the social networks in place to find the much-needed work placements or internships that would give them a foot in the door.

As David Docherty, chief executive of UK not-for-profit membership organisation the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), which promotes collaboration between the two worlds, puts it:

Generally it’s about who you know when we’re talking in terms of advantage and disadvantage. There’s a network of privileged people who exercise privilege and there are those that don’t, so life chances aren’t equal.

Unfortunately though, there is also an all-too-frequent link between socio-economic status and other diversity characteristics such as gender and ethnicity. And such considerations matter - or at least should do - to skills-starved tech companies keen to recruit from a broader talent pool and create a diverse workforce, with all of the benefits that such an approach can bring.

According to McKinsey & Co’s latest diversity and inclusion (D&I) report entitled ‘Delivering through diversity’, there is a clear correlation between adopting an inclusive approach and increased profitability.

For instance, the top 25 per cent of companies surveyed with a good gender mix at the executive level were 21% more likely to demonstrate above average profitability. The figure rose even higher to 33% if ethnicity and race were used as the marker.

Levelling the playing field

One organisation that is trying to address the work experience issue among school children from deprived communities, meanwhile, is Founders4Schools’ Workfinder. The programme is based on an app that works as a matchmaker service to connect young people with local businesses. They apply for opportunities that match their interests directly via the app, while potential employers manage their applications using an online dashboard.

Employers are also vetted to ensure they pass security checks and that they offer meaningful work experience. The aim is not only to provide them with access to a ready talent pool, but also to make the students involved more employable.

Workfinder, which is funded by a range of charitable trusts and foundations, is focused on the UK market today. But it is currently exploring a range of different commercial models to try and ensure its business becomes sustainable and is in a position to expand internationally.

Another UK organisation that is doing its best to ensure “fair access to all” is social enterprise, Placer. Although similar in nature to Workfinder, the digital platform is targeted at university students and was developed to “widen participation” and “make life chances more equal”, says NCUB’s Docherty, who is also Placer’s chairman.

The current challenge is that there are about 2.3 million students in the university system at any one time, he points out. Each institution has its own careers service, which helps them find work placements, and students can also take advantage of the 20 or so different online work experience platforms on the market too.

In theory then, everything should be rosy in the garden because, according to government statistics, there are between 600,000 and 700,000 businesses claiming to offer positions to willing participants. But says Docherty:

In reality, there’s a mismatch and a lot of students don’t get the opportunities that others do. So our aim was to find a way of bringing the grey marketplace, which is based on favours, to a more level playing field, and providing those businesses genuinely committed to solving the diversity challenge with a platform.

Transforming work experience

Placer’s unique selling point, he believes, is the fact that it is co-owned by NCUB, Jisc and Unite Students and partnered with the 76 universities and 50 plus large corporates in the NCUB network. It is, therefore, an official partner, and is provided as a co-branded offering through each university’s careers service.

On accessing the platform, students are able to take advantage not only of the work experience options provided by their own educational institution but also those offered by the Placer companies that have signed up to the service and defined their criteria. Blind screening then takes place on both sides – neither the name nor size of the potential employer is revealed, while students’ personal details such as name or gender remain anonymous.

The next phase is more targeted though. At this point, employers can narrow their search by saying they would, for instance, prefer students from a disadvantaged background, while students are free to specify which kind of company they would like to work for too.

Once the agreed work placement has taken place, participants are then sent feedback forms to gain insight into their experiences. One of the aims here will be to create anonymised reports in order to monitor quality and get a handle on what works and does not work to ensure a cycle of continuous improvement.

Placer currently has over 80 companies signed up to its platform on a free-of-charge basis in a bid to boost take-up, and is also in the process of “onboarding” university careers offices, which pay a flat fee for its service.

The next phase over the following eight to 12 months, however, will be to publish good practice documents based on input from both sides. Developing other forms of support is also in the pipeline such as helping students with their presentation, communication and interview skills, providing mentoring from experienced executives and developing a checklist of things to do should they not get their desired job. Docherty concludes:

We’re trying to embed high quality work experience, but we also aim to transform it. The idea that today you need to do work experience for three or 12 months is an accepted one, but there’s also no harm in doing something for a couple of hours or as a one-off. So we’re looking for ways to change how people view things.

My take

Socio-economic background is one of the most important predictors today of an individual’s likely success in life, but it is an area that is rarely explored in D&I terms. One of the problems is that it is harder to quantify than race or gender, which in turn makes it harder to understand.

But given the all-too-frequent link between socio-economic status and these kinds of diversity characteristics, it is an area that tech employers, if they really do want to get serious about creating an inclusive environment, are simply going to have to get to grips with.

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