Social mobility. We all think it’s fair enough. But do we want it so badly that we will change the habits of a lifetime?

Social mobility. It’s good, isn’t it? If you disagree, I would stop reading now otherwise you’ll get as riled as a unemployed Muslim asylum-seeker reading the Daily Mail. Which is to say very riled indeed.

I would hope that the argument for increasing the social mobility of individuals in society (in this case graduates but true of all) to enable recruiters to take on people from all backgrounds and social classes and to offer everyone an equal chance of employment and advancement is pretty much won. After all, a more representative and diverse workforce is better than the opposite.

This argument was put over with passion at the latest TARGETjobs Breakfast News by the Chairman of Work Group Simon Howard. Although most (all?) employers buy into the concept, there are several traditional and entrenched barriers in the way.

Barrier 1. Initial selection based on degree class
A 2.1 bar favours those educated privately and those from privileged family backgrounds.

Barrier 2. Initial selection based on UCAS tariff
A level points are an unreliable predictor of educational achievement or success in a career but they are reliable markers of social class, ethnicity and educational background.

Barrier 3. Targeting the ‘top 30’ universities
Spending money and time only on recruiting from the top universities means that you are speaking to a more middle-class, white and privately-educated audience.

The solution is simple. Abolish recruitment based on degree class (it’s discriminatory and a poor predictor of success). Stop using A level points (they are not a proxy for ability but a marker of exclusion). Recruit from and target the other 100 universities where talent also resides, and the student body is more diverse.

Oh if only it was that simple. First of all, change probably won’t happen in my lifetime for several reasons so obvious and so oft-made that I am just too weary to restate them. Simon believes the whole education system needs changing to focus on the consumer and he’s right of course. He’s also right to remind us that increased social mobility is not a code for diluting excellence. Large recruiters want a more diverse workforce but they don’t want a reduction in quality. Equally, quality students come from all universities and from all social backgrounds. It’s just more of an effort to fish in uncharted seas.

So a good social mobility strategy is not about dropping standards, it’s about increasing the applicant pool to include students who would probably not apply in the first place. And then it’s about being fair and selecting on ability and potential.

There are some interesting initiatives around to address this little conundrum: how to be as selective and elite an employer as your competitors while simultaneously being open to encouraging more applications from less traditional candidates.

I was particularly struck by what Clifford Chance is doing with their Intelligent Aid annual competition. I like it partly because it’s clever but I like it most for being fair.

Clifford Chance are a magic circle law firm. They are huge. They don’t have too many problems attracting loads of applications from Cambridge. Their brand is simultaneously attractive and intimidating – depending probably on your own estimation of your chances of joining them.

If you go to their website, you’ll see that they have the highest expectations and recruit the best people. Of course they do. That’s why they’re successful.

So how does a giant law firm attract more applications from non-traditional students without compromising its demand for excellence?

They run a competition called Intelligent Aid, open to all and marketed to all, for 20 paid internships with the firm. Entrants can come from any university, possess any number of UCAS points, be heading for any degree, be members of any social class. Everyone has to submit a short essay on a topical subject (this year it’s growth economies) and the best entrants are invited to London to present their arguments to a panel of partners and experts. The twenty best are offered internships (and a contribution to their course fees) and if they perform excellently, they are offered a training contract based on nothing other than their ability and potential. Yes, it’s one of those level playing fields alright.

I suspect that the biggest challenge facing Clifford Chance will not be to attract entries; it will be to persuade maybe under-confident students from less well-targeted campuses to give it a go. Although there are patently no strings attached, it will still involve a leap of faith for some undergrads to truly believe that they are wanted by a magic circle firm. To truly believe that their 200 UCAS points are not being laughed at. And they are wanted, as long as they are super-talented. Which they are just as likely to be if given the chance.

To see what else was covered at TARGETjobs Breakfast News:

And (warming to the theme) for the first time, the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards will include a Social Mobility Award as it’s our hope that initiatives like this and those being explored by other big firms contribute to a recruitment world where the nets are cast wider than they are now. Not only is it good for business, it’s sensible too. And fair. And we all like fair, don’t we?

Enter for an award soon at:

This entry was posted in Internships, Interviews and selection, Placements, Recruitment and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Social mobility. We all think it’s fair enough. But do we want it so badly that we will change the habits of a lifetime?

  1. vicbriggs says:

    I have written a piece on unpaid internships. I would be curious to know if you agree with my position on this:

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