More employers focusing on improving social mobility to reduce barriers for young people, research finds

But a number of firms still offer unpaid internships that ‘rob’ some applicants of their chances, it adds

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More companies are reducing barriers to opportunity for young people, so that what their parents did, where they grew up and the school they attended do not limit their chances, research has found. 

The Social Mobility Employer Index 2023 of 143 organisations discovered that many employers have reduced minimum grade restrictions for graduates, apprentices and school leavers to ensure these routes into work are available to people with all backgrounds. 

In addition, the survey found that 56.8 per cent of index entrants employ contextual recruitment, while 32.6 per cent do not consider grades at all.

Ola Kolade, employment and skills director at Business in the Community, said it was great to see so many organisations were no longer looking at grades during their recruitment process, instead prioritising their professional and personal skills over how they did in exams.

However, he said almost 100 of the businesses in the index still considered grades when recruiting, meaning that they could be “missing out on vital talent by using grades as a measure of suitability”. 

The report found that, although there is progress, “too many employers are still offering unpaid internships”. 

It said: “This contributes to young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds being pushed out of opportunities that improve employability.”

According to the index, three of the 143 private, public and voluntary organisations surveyed offered unpaid internships. The report said: “This is not the example that social mobility trailblazers should set,” adding that “unpaid internships are unethical”. 

It went on: “They rob many young people of opportunity because only a small percentage can afford to work for free, even for short periods of time.” 

The report recommended that employers pay all interns the national living wage, noting that 85.1 per cent of index employers already do so but that “others should follow suit”. 

Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, said: “It’s disheartening to see that some employers are still relying on free internships, though it’s reassuring to see that this practice is in the minority.

“The findings from the Social Mobility Employer Index underscore the pressing need to broaden our perspective on diversity and inclusion. 

“While gender and ethnicity often dominate these discussions, we must recognise that genuine diversity also means creating pathways for individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The index assesses employers in seven areas: their work with young people, routes into the employer, employee attractiveness, recruiting and selection, data collecting, progression of staff and experienced hires, and advocacy. 

The Social Mobility Foundation also interviewed 1,000 young people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds and more than half (56 per cent) said offering paid internships would allow them to seize chances in areas outside of where they now live. 

According to the Social Mobility Employer Index, 83.5 per cent of entrants offered an apprenticeship programme, 84.6 per cent had a graduate recruitment programme and 26.6 per cent welcomed school leavers into their company. 

However, based on parental/guardian occupation data, only 23.3 per cent of graduates, 37.5 per cent of school leavers and 45.9 per cent of school dropouts had low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

A separate CIPD study, in partnership with Reed, found that 9 per cent of employers have focused on improving inclusion and diversity in relation to social mobility/socioeconomic status in the past five years. 

The index also said that the creative industries were failing to take social mobility seriously, accounting for only a small proportion of index newcomers.

Legal firms and banks dominated index entries, but PR, marketing, publishing and broadcasting firms accounted for less than 5 per cent. 

The creative industries employ 2.3 million people, yet the private sector enterprises that participated employ only 9,898 individuals.

In its seventh year, the index ranked UK employers on their work to improve social mobility in the workplace in the seven areas, with PwC topping the list. You can read the full list here.

For the CIPD's reports on social mobility in the workplace, click here and here