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State of the nation 2021: Post pandemic, employer practices will continue to be vital to progress on social mobility

Today, the Social Mobility Commission published its annual appraisal of social mobility in the UK’. Titled ‘State of the nation 2021; Social mobility and the pandemic’, the report draws on an extensive evidence base to lay bare the key barriers to social mobility that exist today. In this article, we outline the implications of the findings for the UK’s employers and explain why the role of employers in promoting social mobility has become increasingly critical. 

For those leading the push toward greater socio-economic diversity and inclusion in their workplaces, the onset of the pandemic will have sent many key initiatives veering off course. In the face of economic uncertainty, adaptation to remote working, and the need to furlough staff, offering work experience placements or running diversity outreach programmes has been a luxury.

It is too early to say just how significant the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on social mobility, but evidence so far indicates that – while the impact of COVID has been felt widely – those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have, in most cases, been hit hardest, and may continue to be for some time to come.

Published today, our report – State of the nation 2021: Social mobility and the pandemic – lays bare the extent of the problem the UK faces, outlining where we were before the crisis hit and showing just what the impact has been.

Now, as we look toward recovery, we’ve set out seven key pillars to build back better, making recommendations to government, employers and others on the steps needed to turn the tide on social mobility. With social mobility closely tied to opportunities in work and employment, it is absolutely critical that employers put social mobility at the top of their agendas once again – not least because being able to draw on the widest possible talent pool will be crucial for commercial success in the years to come.

Social mobility: where are we now?

Before the pandemic, when judged against nearly every critical measure – child poverty, income inequality, unemployment for young people and gaps in school attainment – the UK had poor levels of social mobility.

In terms of outcomes for low socio-economic background (SEB) people in the labour market, it remains the case that you are 60% more likely to get a professional job if you come from a privileged rather than working class background.

Once in professional jobs, gaps between those from privileged backgrounds and those from working class backgrounds persist, both in terms of rates of progression and pay.  Those from working class backgrounds in professional jobs earned about £6,000 less than their more privileged counterparts in professional jobs.

What happened to social mobility in the pandemic?

When the crisis hit, furlough schemes were introduced in all four nations of the UK.  Despite these schemes, the five-year trend of drops in unemployment was disrupted and there has been a rise in unemployment across the workforce. Those in working class jobs have seen some of the most significant declines in paid work in the pandemic.

The loss of work experience during the pandemic has been profound, both as a result of the lost experience resulting from unemployment and furlough, but also as a result of cancelled work experience and internship placements. There is an increased risk that unemployed and furloughed workers will experience poorer labour market outcomes in the future.

Already failing to live up to their social mobility potential, apprenticeships have seen their benefits to low SEB individuals decline during the pandemic. With apprenticeships already predominantly going to those from more privileged backgrounds, this trend widened.

Work experience and training is vital to promoting social mobility. Having opportunities to gain work experience, access to non-graduate entry and being able to take advantage of learning and training opportunities are all crucial ways to ensure fairer access to the labour market. It is likely that, as a result of the pandemic, we will see fewer opportunities for disadvantaged young people to get their foot on the ladder.

What should employers do to promote social mobility?

The employer response to the pandemic was impressive. Where possible, many employers worked hard to adapt existing programmes to remote provision, often with admirable results. The support of charities helping to offer work experience remotely – such as the support provided by Speakers for Schools – meant that many who would have missed out on work experience entirely had opportunities to get involved.

However, there is still work to do. We’re calling on employers to take the following actions to encourage social mobility within their workforce and industries.

1. Know your workforce

We’re asking employers to collect information on the socio-economic background of employees. By asking one question – What was the main occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?’- you can develop a much clearer picture of socio-economic diversity across your organisation, and benchmark this against national and industry figures.

Once you have this data, you’ll be able to target your interventions much more effectively and address the bottlenecks that may exist at different stages of your hiring and progression processes.

Want to understand what to ask and how to use the data? Check out our guidance on data and strategic approach.

2. Widen your talent pool

If you’re recruiting through graduate entry routes, requiring particular qualifications, or only recruiting for roles in certain areas, you may be unnecessarily restricting your access to a much wider pool of potential candidates.

For more information on how to widen your pool of talent, read our guidance for employers on outreach and hiring.

3. Support employees to ‘get on’

Our research continues to show slower rates of in-work progression for low SEB colleagues compared to more privileged colleagues. Find out how to support low SEB colleagues to progress by reading the progression section of our employers toolkit.

The benefits of taking actions to support social mobility in the workforce are clear: for employers, diverse workforces have been shown to be more productive, more efficient, and to increase retention of staff. For young people and society, employers have a key role to play in making sure that employees from low SEB have access to the same opportunities as their more privileged peers.