It is a well-known fact that income inequality among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries is on the rise.
The economic body’s latest report on the matter entitled ‘A broken social elevator? How to promote social mobility’ indicates, for example, that the average disposable income of the richest 10% of the OECD population is now around nine and a half times that of the poorest 10%, up from seven times 25 years ago.
But the study also reveals that being born into a disadvantaged set of circumstances means you are more than likely to remain there. As Gabriela Ramos, the organisation’s Chief of Staff and Sherpa, summarises in her foreword:
Families and communities in many countries seem to be trapped on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, particularly since the early 1980s. This means that children born into the bottom of the income distribution have less chance to move up and improve their occupational status and earnings than their parents and previous generations…In an ‘average OECD country’, it could take five generations for children of poor families to reach the average income in their country.
There is a price to be paid for this situation - and not just by the people who are trapped in a “vicious confluence of poor educational opportunities, low skills and limited employment prospects”. The report explains:
In the context of increased inequalities of income and opportunities, lack of upward mobility at the bottom of the income distribution means that many potential talents are missed out or remain under-developed. It also means that many investment opportunities go unexploited and potential businesses never see the light. This undermines productivity and economic growth.
But beyond the moral implications of allowing talent to be wasted in this way, in a world in which skills shortage are rife, such a scenario appears to make little sense. This is certainly the rationale of IT services provider Fujitsu, which recently found its way onto the Social Mobility Foundation’s list of top 75 UK employers. Karen Thomson, the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Lead for the UK and Ireland, explains:
The decision to focus on social mobility as part of our wider diversity and inclusion strategy resulted, quite simply, from a recognition of what was happening in the marketplace – for example, not only was it becoming clear that those from lower social backgrounds were, and are still today, less likely to go to Russell Group universities, but they are also more likely to earn less in their careers than those from privileged backgrounds. As this trend became more prominent in the marketplace, so did our focus on ensuring that everyone within Fujitsu is given the same opportunity, regardless of social background.
Using a social mobility lens
This focus on social mobility is also important because, while it may be “one of the lesser known diversity and inclusion issues”, it has an impact on lots of other ones, believes Lindsey Hopkins, a customer account lead and social mobility advocate at the company. She explains:
If we put a social mobility lens on things when recruiting, we’ve found that it helps improve the situation in other diversity areas too, such as hiring black, Asian and minority ethnic people. Here, we’ve seen numbers increase from 13% of the workforce to 28%, so social mobility is an important issue to focus on.
As to what the supplier is actually doing to promote this agenda, it has taken a three-pronged approach. In 2012, it introduced an official apprenticeship scheme, which is targeted primarily at school-leavers and covers three levels: Advanced (Level 3) and Higher (Level 4), both of which last for two years, as well as Degree (Levels 5 and 6), which takes four years. Possible subject areas include business and administration, associate project management, software development and cyber-security.
Each apprentice is taken on as a full-time, paid employee on a fixed-term contract, with a possibility of gaining a permanent job at the end of the training period. In 2019, 57 joined the company via this route compared with 53 graduates, some 66% of which came from non-Russell Group universities, a figure that has changed little in three years.
Meanwhile, says Hopkins, in order to ”start measuring the relevancy of academic achievement”, the next step, which was taken in 2015, was to remove the use of UCAS tariff points during the recruitment process. These points, which are used as a way to work out the value of qualifications, used to be employed by the company as an entry marker for graduates, and students being evaluated for placements.
By 2018, this attempt to level the playing field was further refined by introducing an approach called ‘situation judgement testing’. The aim here was to hire graduates based on potential, attitude and aptitude rather than their qualifications. Hopkins explains:
We look at how they perform in given situations, and they’re marked by managers who have done courses on things like unconscious bias. The tests are based on business situations, so we’re evaluating how candidates perform when dealing with real day-to-day issues based on their potential, passion and problem-solving abilities – and we’ve definitely seen an increase in diversity and recruitment from non-Russell Group universities as a result.
Start of the journey
The third prong of the firm’s bid to become more socially inclusive is based on educational outreach. For example, the company together with Business in the Community, a charity promoting responsible business, provide a series of workshops to three secondary schools in socially-deprived areas of the UK.
These workshops are intended to raise learners’ awareness of what opportunities are available to them as well as develop skills to help them become more employable. Sessions include writing CVs and undertaking mock interviews, office site visits and ‘show and tell’ networking events for Year 11 students and their parents, which involve meeting with apprentices and graduates to discuss the path they took to get them where they are today. Hopkins says:
Our outreach and educational work is really important to us and it’s something we want to increase over the coming year. The key challenges that people face are a lack of confidence, so self-belief; credentials, that is qualifications, and connections. So by going into the community at an early stage, we’re trying to show people they can have access to a structured pathway to success, which covers everything from work experience through to apprenticeships and graduate programmes.
Beyond the anecdotal though, it is not yet clear what real difference such initiatives have made due to a lack of available data. Indeed, as Hopkins says, the company is only “at the start of the journey” in terms of collecting information about employees’ social backgrounds using staff surveys. She explains:
We’ve collected a small amount of data to get a baseline, which is looking at the schools employees attended. But we plan to add other social mobility markers in future surveys, such as ‘were you the first in your family to attend university?’ and ‘did you have free school meals?’ They’re the ones publicised by the Social Mobility Commission so they’re recognised as being good.
Another useful source of information, Hopkins says, is the regular roundtable meetings hosted by the employers’ network for Equality and Inclusion (enei). As she concludes:
It enables us to share best practice with other members of the network, which is really important as it helps us learn from others’ successes and failures.
Socio-economic background is arguably one of the most significant, but possibly most neglected of the diversity buckets, as it cuts across all demographic groups, irrespective of race, age, gender, sexuality etc and leads to a general lack of opportunities in life.
One of the problems though is that socio-economic status is notoriously difficult to define and, therefore, measure, which puts many employers off tackling it head on. Furthermore, for some, the topic has uncomfortable political undertones, while for others, it has simply not occurred to them to think about it.
Nonetheless, the fact that members of minority, or otherwise traditionally disadvantaged, groups are often disproportionately found in deprived communities means it is an issue that does need to be taken seriously if employers really want to ensure their organisation is truly inclusive.