Tackling the ethnic minority employment gap

The fight for equal opportunities for BAME workers has come a long way, says Alok Sharma, but it’s far from over

Did you know that, according to LinkedIn, 38 per cent of companies still struggle to find diverse candidates for their vacancies?

That’s a stark figure, particularly given we have more people from ethnic minorities in employment than ever before, with the employment rate at a record high 66.5 per cent, and the fact this demographic makes up one in eight of the UK workforce.

Today, there are 1.2 million more ethnic minority people in work than in 2010, a 45 per cent increase.

But it has taken 35 years for Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds to enjoy the same employment prospects the country at large had back in the mid-1980s.

In that time the UK’s overall employment rate has continued to grow and is now a record 76.1 per cent, with the number of BAME people in work equal to the nationwide employment rate in March 1984.

So it’s easy to become complacent when looking at these figures. They do indeed portray a society that’s increasingly accepting and fair, one that offers equal opportunity to all regardless of their heritage – but we must not be blinded to the fact that inequality still exists.

We may well be on the road to equal employment, with ethnic minority groups making up a third of new workers since 2010. But we cannot let up in our determination to attract and retain a diverse talent pool.

That’s why when I heard this statistic, showing employers struggling to employ diverse candidates, it reaffirmed the challenge ahead.

From the work of our local Jobcentres it’s clear that one of the biggest challenges facing young people in particular, is getting into professional careers they do not have any experience of. Where the application and interview process is often alien to them.

To tackle that we need the help of employers themselves – who better to understand the expectations and skills needed to get a good job?

One initiative that’s helping tackle not only the ethnic minority employment gap but also reducing youth unemployment, is a new national employer mentoring scheme.

It brings young and aspiring jobseekers into contact with national and local employers through their Jobcentre, where they receive coaching and advice on interview techniques, CV writing and assessment centres.

My department rolled out the initiative across the UK earlier this year following a successful pilot which saw 500 young jobseekers mentored by 85 employers, including Google, Barclays and KPMG.

Originally targeted at those from ethnic backgrounds, I have since opened this support to all young people through Jobcentres to give everyone the opportunity to receive expert advice and explore new career paths that they might not have considered before.

While we were trialling it, I sat in on a few sessions myself and found the response from young people extremely encouraging and inspiring – hearing their unique stories and career hopes for the future.

I met Hawa, a graduate who had struggled to get in front of employers and match her skills to vacancies and as a result was feeling disheartened. She told me the support was invaluable and how the strong rapport that developed between her and her mentor had really made the difference. Hawa now works at the Ministry for Justice, in a role she had been striving for.

Listening to Hawa reminded me of the old adage, that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ and as much as intellect, skills and qualifications open doors, often people are seen as being as valuable as their connections make them.

Bringing employers and jobseekers together through our Jobcentres allows professional networks to grow. But I want even more people to have this opportunity, particularly those often left out of professional cliques, to ensure our future workforce is a truly diverse place where no career is off limits.

That is why I’ve ensured that, although mentoring circles are available to all young jobseekers, there are still specific sessions for ethnic minority groups to combat the challenge faced by employers struggling to recruit diverse talent. 

Since I have become employment minister, I have made it my personal mission to create an environment that does not discriminate and ensures a level playing field. Where what actually matters is your talent and potential, not your background.

In a speech at the CBI’s annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference in June, I called on all employers to work with me to further push the boundaries of diversity by getting in touch with their local Jobcentre to see how they can offer invaluable mentoring to the next generation.

Together, we can drive forward our work to close the BAME employment gap and create a fully inclusive workforce as diverse as the country’s population, fit for the 21st century.

Alok Sharma is minister for employment at the Department for Work and Pensions