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| 14 minutes read

An Employers Guide to Social Mobility in the UK: The Who, What, Where, Why and How

According to the UK Government’s 2023 State of the Nation report, adults with lower working-class parents are about 3 times as likely – 30% against 11% – to be in a working-class occupation  compared to adults with higher professional parents. In education, people whose parents had degrees are far more likely – 64% against 18% – to get a degree than those whose parents had no qualifications.

Social mobility, officially recognized as an area of diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) thanks to the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission, is linked to equality of opportunity: the extent to which people have the same chances to do well in life regardless of the socio-economic background of their parents, their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, birthplace, or other circumstances beyond their control.

According to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, UK social mobility is at its worst in over 50 years. Now is the time for businesses to fulfill their social and ethical obligations by promoting social mobility in the workplace.

According to the Sutton Trust, enhancing social mobility within UK businesses to align with the average level seen in Western Europe could potentially lead to a 9% boost in GDP. This increase is equivalent to £2,620 per person, or a total of £170 billion added to the UK economy annually.

What is Social Mobility?

Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families, or other social units between positions of varying advantage in the system of social stratification of a society. (International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001).

Many sociologists have traditionally concentrated on examining mobility between occupational classes, specifically the types of jobs individuals hold. In contrast, economists have more recently shifted their focus toward analysing income mobility.

Social mobility and equality of opportunity can be measured in terms of occupation, income, or ‘social class’, but can also encompass other measurements of social well-being such as health and education.

When an individual experiences a shift in their position, particularly in their occupation, without a change in social class, it is referred to as "horizontal mobility." On the other hand, if the transition results in a change in social class, it is known as "vertical mobility," which can manifest as either "upward mobility" or "downward mobility." 

The key markers of social mobility are health, education, housing, income, race, and gender. 

In the workplace, social mobility pertains to an individual's capacity to ascend or descend within the hierarchy or structure of a company or organization. It encompasses the progression a person’s career and enhancement of their job role, salary, and overall professional standing within their current workplace.

“This class pay gap is not just an indictment of professional employers. It is morally unjust and economically illiterate.” Alan Milburn, Social Mobility Foundation chair

Why is social mobility important?

People from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer opportunities to climb the socio-economic ladder. The current economic situation in the UK is likely to exacerbate the UK’s social divides, limiting the career prospects of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Social mobility plays a crucial role in the health of the economy. 

In 2021, services industries in the UK contributed £1.7bn in gross value to the economy, 80% of the total figure. A recent report by the Law Society highlighted the importance of social mobility in the professional services sector, stating that a lack of it poses a significant threat to Britain's competitiveness and productivity.

According to the World Economic Forum, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterized by rapid globalization and technological advancements, has resulted in a rise in inequality. For instance, the Forum highlights that the top 1% of earners in the United States saw their income increase by 158% between 1979 and 2018, while the bottom 90% experienced only a 24% increase. This disparity underscores the widening gap between the wealthiest individuals and the majority of the population, highlighting the urgent need for policies that address income inequality and promote economic inclusivity.

“As the hiring demands for tech skills in the UK continues to rise, organisations are finding it challenging to access the talent they need to innovate and progress. The UK government recognises the importance of the tech sector and tech skills for improving the UK economy, but also acknowledges there is a significant shortage of available candidates in the market.” Mel Barnett, managing director, Public Sector Resourcing

PwC’s Future of Government research asked 4,000 people across the UK about their concerns around social mobility and the actions that they think government and businesses should take in response. The polling revealed that business has a vital role to play in improving the social mobility of younger generations, with calls from the public for better access to opportunities, work experience, and career pathways, and greater investment in apprenticeships and skills.

Implementing a social mobility strategy is not only an ethical decision, but it also plays a crucial role in shaping a more skilled and prepared workforce for the future. It not only expands the talent pool for an organization, but also enhances its appeal to potential recruits, especially the influential Generation Z, who will soon comprise the majority of the workforce. It not only fosters growth and improves local economies where an organisation operates, but it also contributes to the development of more equitable and cohesive communities.

Promoting socio-economic inclusivity is also a strategic business decision. Diverse workforces have been proven to be more innovative, productive, and better equipped to navigate the challenges of the future. By embracing inclusivity, organizations can unlock new perspectives, ideas, and talents that drive success and growth.

PwC’s global 2022 Hopes and Fears survey revealed that employees expect their employer to have strong ESG credentials; three-quarters say that they want to work for an organisation that makes a positive contribution to society, and 54% say that transparency around diversity in their employer is extremely or very important to them.

Prospective employees and clients are increasingly seeking out companies that prioritize purpose, not just profit. By championing the social mobility agenda, businesses can effectively balance their commercial interests with making a positive impact and preparing their workforce for the future.

Where compares with the UK?

The social mobility geographical patterns in the UK are striking. People of a working-class background who grew up in Outer London (West and North) had a 46% chance of becoming professionals, while those growing up in Northern Ireland had only a 28% chance.

The first round of the government’s Levelling Up funding saw £1.7bn distributed among 105 UK towns and cities, with further plans to invest in skills training, in some of the UK’s most deprived areas.

Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggested that on a wide variety of measures, regional disparities in the UK are greater than in most comparable countries.

In a study conducted by Wilkinson and Pickett, the results of which were initially published in 2009, an in-depth analysis of social mobility in developed countries was carried out. Among the eight countries examined - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the UK, and the US - it was found that the US exhibited the highest level of economic inequality and the lowest level of economic mobility. Further research has consistently shown that the US has notably low mobility for individuals at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy, with mobility gradually improving as one ascends the ladder. 

Research comparing social mobility across developed nations has shown that Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Canada have the lowest intergenerational income elasticity, indicating higher levels of social mobility. In these countries, less than 20% of the advantages of having a high-income parent are passed on to their children.

In countries like India, it is common for educated women not to use their education to move up the social ladder due to cultural and traditional customs.

Chile and Brazil, two countries characterized by high levels of inequality, also exhibit some of the lowest levels of social mobility.

Who are the key players?

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) exists to create a United Kingdom where the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life. The SMC’s State of the Nation report, is an annual report on social mobility in the UK, which sets out their views on the progress made towards improving social mobility in United Kingdom. 

The Social Mobility Index is a framework for measuring social mobility in the UK. It enables a systematic look at social mobility outcomes, as well as the drivers behind social mobility. It sets out a long-term vision for measuring and monitoring social mobility outcomes over the next 30 years across the UK. 

The Social Mobility Foundation is a UK-based non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the social mobility agenda, by directly supporting young people through their Aspiring Professionals Programme and influencing employers to support people with potential in their professional progression. The foundation’s Employer Index is the leading national study analysing the efforts of employers to improve social mobility within the workplace.

The Sutton Trust champions social mobility through programmes, research, and policy influence through key priority areas; early years, schools, higher education, access to the workplace, and apprenticeships. According to the Sutton Trust, enhancing social mobility within UK businesses to align with the average level seen in Western Europe could potentially lead to a 9% boost in GDP. This increase is equivalent to £2,620 per person, or a total of £170 billion added to the UK economy on an annual basis.

The Global Social Mobility Index was created by the World Economic Forum in 2020 in response to the impact of globalization and technological advancements on social mobility worldwide. 82 countries were measured on five key metrics: education, access to technology, healthcare, social protection, and employment opportunities. The top 10 countries with the highest social mobility index scores are located in Europe, with the majority of those being Nordic Countries. Nordic countries lead the index for several reasons, including excellent job opportunities, social safety nets and high-quality education programmes. 

The highest possible score a country could receive was 100. 

(Source: World Population Review)

“When it comes to social mobility and sustainability, if we can support our customers' goals in these areas, it’s a win/win. In the public sector, social value is a crucial factor, so being able to demonstrate our work in this area is incredibly important and we have a real responsibility to do the right thing.” Anna Crowe, client operations director, AMS

How can we promote social mobility?

How businesses address social mobility will play a pivotal role in fostering a thriving and prosperous UK. Developing an effective social mobility strategy is not a straightforward task. It necessitates a shift in mindset, wherein the entire organization re-evaluates its approach to talent acquisition and recruitment. Both public and private sector organisations have a role to play in advancing the social mobility agenda. 

Our recommendations for organisations looking to advance social mobility: 

  1. Start with the data. Historically, organizations have neglected to collect socio-economic data on their workforce, resulting in significant gaps in knowledge regarding key challenges, effective solution targeting, and potential areas of impact. This oversight has also contributed to a lack of insight into the extent of socio-economic diversity within the workforce and the identification of potential barriers. For instance, it remains unclear whether these barriers manifest at various stages of the employee lifecycle (from recruitment to advancement), within specific business locations or functions, or in conjunction with other demographic factors like ethnicity and gender. Addressing these gaps in data collection and analysis is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and equitable workplace environment.
  2. Increase upskilling and reskilling. Access to upskilling and reskilling opportunities is not evenly distributed. Leaders must establish inclusive opportunities by providing training and work experience to their employees as well as the broader community. This can be achieved through partnerships with educational institutions and charitable organizations.
  3. Broaden your talent pool. Many businesses continue to view universities as their main source of talent, whether consciously or unconsciously, limiting their talent pool. PwC’s research indicates that 83% of the general public views access to local employment opportunities as a significant obstacle to achieving social mobility. Businesses have the opportunity to leverage virtual work arrangements to offer valuable work experience opportunities and expand their talent pool through targeted recruitment campaigns.
  4. Review end-to-end recruitment process. Organizations should thoroughly review and analyze each step in the hiring process. This includes assessing job posting language to ensure it is inclusive and free from biases, expanding outreach efforts to reach a more diverse pool of candidates, implementing blind resume screening practices to remove any unconscious biases, providing equal opportunities for all applicants regardless of their background or education level, and setting clear diversity goals for hiring managers to follow. By taking a comprehensive approach to enhancing social mobility in recruitment, organizations can create a more equitable and diverse workforce that reflects the values of inclusivity and equal opportunity. 
  5. Reassess procurement. This entails considering how vendor selection criteria can be adjusted to provide opportunities for historically marginalized groups, such as minority-owned businesses or those led by women or individuals with disabilities. By deliberately seeking out suppliers who prioritize social responsibility and promote workforce diversity, companies can not only make a positive impact on society but also benefit from a wider range of perspectives and expertise. Additionally, implementing measures such as supplier diversity programs or mentorship initiatives can help level the playing field and create pathways for underrepresented businesses to thrive in the marketplace. Through conscious efforts to reevaluate procurement practices, organizations can contribute to creating a more equitable and inclusive business environment while driving innovation and success.
  6. Develop a strategy in line with your business and ESG objectives. Integrating social mobility efforts into ESG objectives demonstrates a commitment to addressing systemic inequalities and promoting sustainable practices. As businesses continue to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their operations, developing a tailored social mobility strategy is crucial in driving positive social impact while also achieving long-term business success. This may involve implementing initiatives such as mentorship programs, skills training opportunities, or flexible work arrangements to support employees from all backgrounds in advancing within the company.

"Social mobility is a key strategic enabler for AMS. Our business is all about talent and having a fair and level playing field which is open to all, including those of us who may be from lower socio-economic backgrounds." Matthew Rodger, Chief Growth & Commercial Officer and ExCo sponsor for Social Mobility, AMS

Top tips to enhance social mobility through recruitment:

  • Collaborate with schools and community organizations to provide internship opportunities and develop talent pipelines that can help bridge the gap for underprivileged individuals seeking employment opportunities. 
  • When evaluating entry-level candidates, contextualise their academic achievements to create a more level playing field for all applicants.
  • Eliminate bias in the hiring process by implementing blind recruitment practices and ensuring that all candidates are evaluated solely based on their qualifications and merit. 
  • Offer mentorship programs and professional development opportunities to help individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds navigate the corporate world more successfully and advance in their careers.
  • Transition away from competency-based models that solely focus on candidates demonstrating specific skills, which can be influenced by their access to extracurricular activities or job opportunities. Instead, consider adopting strength-based models that incorporate interviews and scenario testing to assess an individual's abilities and potential more effectively. This shift will allow for a more comprehensive evaluation of candidates, leading to better hiring decisions and improved organizational outcomes.
  • Provide additional job opportunities in areas outside of major cities to reduce the burden on candidates who may be reluctant to relocate. Leveraging remote or hybrid working is key.
  • Creating employee resource groups around social mobility. Establishing employee resource groups focused on social mobility is essential for promoting socioeconomic inclusion and ensuring a diverse representation of the communities we serve. These groups aim to support the professional advancement of employees from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Relax the requirements for bachelor’s degrees where possible. This could potentially open up more opportunities for individuals seeking to advance their education and career prospects. By re-evaluating the criteria for earning a bachelor's degree, we can create a more inclusive and accessible educational system that benefits a wider range of individuals.

The Social Mobility agenda at AMS

We are honoured to be recognised as a top 75 employer in the Social Mobility Foundation's Employer Index

In September 2023, we officially launched its partnership with Movement to Work (MtW), a not-for-profit coalition of UK employers, youth-outreach organisations, training providers, and government – all aiming to level the playing field for young people, aged 16-30, who are not in employment, education, or training. 

MtW works with employers, free of charge, to design and create vocational workplace opportunities and work experience placements either in-house or through its recommended training providers. MtW counts some of the biggest UK employers among its members including Accenture, BAE Systems, Tesco, BT, Barclays, M&S, Marriott, The Department of Work and Pensions and the British Army.

Measures taken by AMS in recent years include increasing partnerships and collaboration with key social enterprises, charities, and small businesses as well as a renewed focus on data collection allowing AMS to understand the socio-economic makeup of their colleagues based in the UK&I region.

AMS Talent Lab, provides expert training to help organisations turn people with the right potential and aptitude into people with the right skills. Whether it is upskilling or reskilling existing tech talent or developing a recruiter team from scratch. Every element of Talent Lab is designed to enhance social mobility, tapping into the potential that exists in all corners of our society, from attraction to assessment, training, and ongoing support.  AMS Talent Lab enables organisations to gain a competitive edge and benefit from a diverse viewpoint. 

AMS’s Public Sector Resourcing (PSR) service provides more than 19,000 skilled workers across the UK government at any one time, meeting contingent resourcing demands on large projects including Brexit and the pandemic. PSR formed its Social Value Model and strategy to align with the challenges facing the public sector and works collaboratively with clients. 

The Social Value Model was built to address five key themes that include Equal Opportunity, Tackling Economic Inequality and Fighting Climate Change each with subsequent policy outcomes. On the PSR framework we have projects and programmes aligned to each of these areas to drive positive change, as well as repurposing initiatives already in place at AMS to make them applicable to our public sector customers.

We introduced a new service line in PSR, called ‘Recruit, Train, Deploy’, to bring in trainees from under-represented or those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, upskill them and then place them in a client organisation, providing both commercial and social value. Our partnerships with inclusive recruiters like Recruit for Spouses, Auticon, and Bridge of Hope help to provide opportunities to individuals who might not think public sector roles are for them.

"Since its inception in 1996, social mobility has been part of AMS’s DNA. We believe that we can further help ourselves and our clients who wish to diversify their talent pipeline by creating opportunities for candidates from underrepresented talent groups and if needed training them with in-demand skills." Matthew Rodger, Chief Growth & Commercial Officer and ExCo sponsor for Social Mobility , AMS

AMS is committed to driving the dial forward on social mobility and championing change to level the playing field for the world of work.  

 

Interested in learning more about how your organisation can advance social mobility? 

Contact Fionuala Goritsas, Head of Analyst Relations & Global Co-Chair for Social Mobility, or Marisa Baker, Client Services Manager and Social Mobility ERG Co-Lead.

Tags

ams, candidate attraction, diversity equity inclusion, employer brand, esg, future of work, leadership, reskilling, services procurement, social mobility, talent acquisition, tech skilling, upskilling, wellbeing