UK firms push ahead with social mobility efforts but more work needed, says charity
Main image
Social distancing covid
Shani Alexander
Shani Alexander, Senior reporter

UK employers are “stepping up to the plate” in a bid to make social mobility a core part of their diversity and inclusion agendas, despite the pandemic exposing deep societal inequities, a new report has found.

Now in its fifth year, the Social Mobility Employer Index highlights organisations that recruit and advance talented young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Published by the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), the number of employers participating in the index has grown from 98 five years ago to 203 in 2021. The firms represented in the latest index collectively employ around 1.35 million people.

The growth in the index demonstrates that social mobility is no longer a niche interest and has rightly become a core aspect of employers’ diversity and inclusion policies, said Alan Milburn, chair of the SMF.

While the number of participating businesses has increased, the charity’s research found that covid-19 had heavily impacted employers’ social mobility efforts, with 64% reporting having to change their hiring intake.

Nevertheless, 58% of employers are ring-fencing more internships for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and more than 5.4 million students benefited from school outreach programmes from 115 organisations.

Although the figure is slightly down from 2019’s 5.6 million students, it is higher than the 939,000 students reached in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

“Spurred on by successive lockdowns, some employers have innovated in their social mobility practices, such as rethinking outreach activity and university visits,” said Milburn. “The private businesses and public sector organisations in this year’s index are taking practical action of their own to level-up Britain.”

The report found many firms tackled the pandemic by moving to virtual outreach work, with more than half moving all such activities online during the 2021 reporting period. That trend looks set to continue post-pandemic, with 89% of organisations saying they will deliver both in-person and online outreach in the future.

In addition, 20% of employers reported that their organisational approach to social mobility was being dealt with at the board level in 2021 – double the number from 2020. A further 41% said social mobility was dealt with at the executive level, slightly up from 40% the previous year.

“Senior buy-in is crucial to success, and we would like to see social mobility prioritised at the highest level of the organisation,” said the report.

Also of note, 49% of all organisations are working with their clients to improve social mobility through the supply chain – the highest percentage in the past four years.

Cold spots

While much of the index’s data is encouraging, the SMF said it was disappointing that only 55% of employers were targeting social mobility “cold spots” for outreach. This represents the second-lowest percentage in the past four years, but the charity argues that support in these deprived areas can make a huge difference to individuals and help level up the UK.

“More work is needed too on career progression, socioeconomic background data collection, training for managers, and engagement with external recruitment support,” said Milburn.

“Higher-level apprenticeships, long heralded as the silver bullet for social mobility, are offered by fewer employers in this year’s index and evidence is growing that they risk becoming the preserve of the middle-classes.”

Employers’ visits to Russell Group universities fell again this year, by one percentage point to 53%. The report views this as a positive sign, since those prestigious universities are less likely to be attended by students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Despite this, however, outreach to Oxford and Cambridge students remains disproportionately high among employers. The two world-renowned academic institutions were visited more often than 64 other universities combined in 2021, with Cambridge once again the most-visited school.

The SMF is now calling on the government to put social mobility at the heart of its levelling-up agenda and work with employers for better results. 

The charity said 44% of organisations are not collecting socioeconomic data from their current employees and only 22% are publishing data, despite this being crucial to developing a social mobility strategy. Around half (48%) did not work with national or local government on their social mobility agendas.

“The pandemic has exposed the new geography of disadvantage in Britain and, through disruption in the classroom, exam hall, and workplace, created serious barriers to young people’s opportunities. If older people have been on the health frontline of the pandemic, it is the young who seem doomed to suffer the biggest economic and social consequences,” said Milburn.

“Employer-led social mobility will be vital in bridging the divide and delivering the levelling-up agenda. All of the employers represented in the index are showing that it is possible to create a society where it is not background or birth but aptitude and ability that dictate progress in life,” he added.

“If we are to rescue the fraying promise of a meritocratic society, then more employers must join them and government must follow suit in taking targeted action to address social mobility.”

Legal sector results

Law firms made up 25% of entries to the index; banking, financial services, and insurance made up 18%, while the public sector made up another 16%. Nevertheless, the report found highly represented sectors are not always those which are the highest performers.

This year, Russell Group graduates were three times as likely to succeed in their applications to legal sector businesses as those from other higher education institutions.

National firm Browne Jacobson topped the employer rankings, followed by consultancy giant KPMG, and international firm Herbert Smith Freehills. Accounting firm Grant Thornton and financial service provider Severn Trent placed fourth and fifth, respectively.

“It is heartening to see the measures some firms have taken to advance social mobility, such as running virtual events with partners to inform students about apprenticeship programmes and offering mentoring programmes for applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” said I Stephanie Boyce, president of Law Society of England and Wales.

“The pandemic has, however, widened socioeconomic inequalities in education and employment, but has also created potential opportunities for firms and organisations to reach out to students and candidates in geographical areas that historically have had low social mobility,” she added. 

“We look forward to engaging with the wider legal and professional services sector to help drive social mobility in the coming year, including via our participation in the Social Mobility Taskforce for professional services.”