Main content

The new frontier of DEI - socio-economic backgrounds, ageism and skills-based hiring

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 1, 2024
Expert tips on diverse hiring and overcoming digital talent shortages.


Socio-economic background, age and skills-based hiring all need to be critical elements of DEI strategies and getting access to digital talent. That was the message from a panel of diversity and business leaders speaking at an event to launch Workday’s Global Blueprint for Belonging and Diversity report.

Socio-economic background is one of the core areas Aviva is targeting as part of its DEI program. As well as including characteristics like gender identification, sexual orientation, faith and neurodiversity in its user engagement survey, the insurance firm also added questions to indicate employees’ socio-economic status. Jonny Briggs, DEI and Resourcing Director, Aviva, explained:

The challenge there is what questions to do. Our view is you get good indicators, but you can’t have an exact answer. We initially asked whether you were entitled to free school meals if you were brought up in the UK, because that was means tested, and then whether you were the first to go to university.

The insurance company anonymously aggregated the data it collected, and then worked with Progress Together to help understand the impact of coming from a low socio-economic background on careers. The data enabled Aviva to see how many leaders indicated they were from low socio-economic backgrounds, and how long it takes someone from that group to progress against someone from a higher socio-economic background. Briggs added:

The tricky bit is what initiatives do we put in place to try and resolve some of that. That's the bit that we need to get in place. We're now in a brilliant place for data baseline, but it's about what we’re going to do with it.


A shift to skills-based hiring could help in supporting the careers of those from low socio-economic backgrounds, according to Michael Houlihan, CEO, Generation UK&I. He said:

It’s one of the next frontiers of DEI, where there hasn't been nearly enough progress. Skills-based hiring should address some of the big blockers to people from different backgrounds getting fair opportunity to apply to these jobs.

Part of the challenge when it comes to closing the skills gap for underrepresented communities stems from universities not always equipping those students with all the skills they need – and this is where AI could help. 

Ashleigh Ainsley, co-founder at Colorintech, explained that his organization was set up in response to the gap between the number of Black students with STEM degrees and the number successfully entering the tech workplace. He said:

We were hearing about the skills challenge, but we're actually producing lots of people who seemingly would have some of these skills who still weren't finding their way into the workplace. Why?

When Colorintech researched the issue, it discovered people coming out of university with a computer science degree who had never had the opportunity to have an interview or do any work in the sector up to that point. Ainsley said:

You get the opportunity to potentially have your first role and you fall down at the first hurdle. Even basic things like doing your CV or having a competitive application - tell me about a time when you led a team - that's great if you have the opportunity to lead a team but not everybody has that equitable opportunity to lead a team at certain times in their career journey for whatever reason, whether it's about responsibilities at home or access to finance or other opportunities.

AI has the potential to support students and young people here, whether as a learning co-pilot in their career field, or to ask what questions might come up in an interview, or how to write a CV and job application. Ainsley added:

That's going to be a great enabler for people who otherwise potentially might have not had access to knowing somebody who's been at an interview before, having a referral network to ask them about how can I support myself? Or you might dictate into it your answer and it might say, well, have you thought about this or that, or potentially somebody might ask you this follow-up question.

You can start to close some of these gaps where historically, unless you knew somebody at this company, you wouldn't know potentially what they might ask.

Tackling these issues isn’t just about making hiring and career progression fair to all individuals; it’s also about ensuring organizations can access the relevant talent. Houlihan said:

The skills gap is very real, particularly in digital. The economy will create millions of digital jobs by the end of the decade. Look at the supply chain of skills trying to address that, and it's nowhere near big enough. Add up the number of people going through degrees in either digital fields or the share of people that want to do something else and then convert into an additional role, it’s still nowhere near big enough; add on apprenticeships, it’s still nowhere near big enough.

Houlihan commended the UK Government on its investment in skills bootcamps. These relatively short and intensive programs, at typically 12 weeks long, are long enough to get individuals job-ready in areas like digital. He noted:

Not all jobs require you to do three years of a degree, you can become valuable in 12 weeks.

Skilling provisions like bootcamps should open up access to groups who are currently shut out, whether that’s underrepresented groups or those facing barriers to university. 


Another aspect of diversity that needs more focus is ageism. Generation UK&I’s research into the mid-career stage revealed there’s a growing problem for people over the age of 45, which is a large and growing section of the population, whose employment prospects are getting much worse. Houlihan said:

Employers or prospective employers perceive people of age 45-plus as much less attractive employees on a number of fronts. They do not pay much value to the extra experience those individuals have. The paradox is that, when you then track their performance, it's just as good as the younger hires, if not better. The picture will get more severe as the person gets older and these biases become bigger.

One company trying to tackle the skills gap and do recruitment differently is Workday customer Accenture. Daniel Pell, VP and Country Manager, UKI, Workday, said:

They have a real challenge, as we do, around hiring talent. It's really hard. Even an organization like ours, there is a lot of competition for good talent and frankly, particularly diverse talent. If I go looking for salespeople or anyone, I can go to all other organizations like Workday and find people that look like people that we would typically hire, middle aged, white men, a particular age. Finding young diverse talent is really hard for any business.

Post-Covid, Accenture was looking to hire thousands of people and couldn't find the right talent. Students coming out of the traditional prestigious universities just didn’t have the right skills. Pell said:

They were getting people that were very good at passing exams, very good at funding themselves through university but they weren't finding the critical thinking skills and everything they needed.

Accenture used Workday Skills Cloud and recruiting tools to access a much wider pool of candidates, break down people's CVs and look for skills. Rather than going to universities, it went to people early in their career, who were currently in roles and had been working for two to three years, gaining relevant skills.

For account manager roles, Accenture targeted people working in customer service and call centers with good relationship skills, who had built experience of interacting with people. Pell added:

They were fairly low paid and low in their career. They could take those individuals with the right skills and give them a huge boost in terms of their income, and they would bring in a different skill set and different thoughts.

While the Accenture example is great, according to Houlihan, it’s very much an outlier. Generation UK&I’s research of around 2,000 global employers found that the vast majority of organizations still recruit people with degrees or previous work experience. It also revealed that entry-level roles are a bit of a myth. Houlihan explained:

A role that's labelled as entry level, 94% had a requirement for a degree or previous work experience. You can imagine being a person trying to break into a sector, seeing that in job descriptions for ‘entry-level roles’.

And the situation has got worse. Of those same employers, 60% had added requirements in the last three years, despite all the discussion about skills-based hiring. Houlihan said:

Recruiting people with degrees and previous work experience is the norm by the vast majority. As long as that is the case, employers will continue to recruit from the same pools. 

The make-up of people going to university is only going to shift very slowly over decades, and the people in the current workplace is only going to change very slowly. The big shift will happen when people genuinely embrace skills-based hiring and that is the unlock to recruit from genuinely different parts of the population. But that has not happened yet. That's the next big frontier.

A grey colored placeholder image