Upwardly mobile: Why social mobility matters

As an employer, as a professional body and as a thought leader, AAT’s commitment to social mobility is unwavering. However, some continue to question why this is something in which AAT invests.

Mobility problems

Those from better-off backgrounds are almost 80% more likely to end up in a professional job than those from a working-class background and even when those from a lower socio-economic background secure a professional job, they typically earn 17% less than their more privileged colleagues.

This is simply unacceptable. It has nothing to do with talent or potential and everything to do with a lack of opportunity.

The problem is particularly pronounced in the accountancy sector with research from the Bridge Group confirming that the largest accounting firms are less likely to employ applicants from low-income backgrounds than their wealthier peers, despite a range of award-winning programmes to change this.

Educational institutions and businesses large and small can do more to help deliver greater social mobility and like many others, AAT is playing a part in seeking to change things for the better.

Employer responsibility

In 2018, AAT undertook its first internship programme, giving an opportunity to 7 individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The scheme proved so successful for interns and AAT that AAT was awarded “Employer Newcomer of the Year by the Brokerage.

“We chose AAT as Employer Newcomer of the Year… for being a supporting, accommodating and welcoming organisation. This helped the interns to settle down quickly and enjoy the experience,” Bridget Gardiner Chief Executive, The Brokerage

Last year, AAT undertook interviewer training to underscore the impact of unconscious bias on the recruitment process; to ensure that AAT’s recruitment process is fair and that it promotes the organisations values.

AAT has also taken part in the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI) benchmarking survey, performing well in many areas but also helping to identify areas for improvement and informing AAT’s new Equality & Diversity Inclusion strategy, recently signed off by AAT’s Executive Committee.

The power of apprenticeships

AAT plays a crucial role in the apprenticeship marketplace with approximately 16,000 apprentices. These are being offered by a very diverse range of employers including 80% of the FTSE 100, local and central Government, the third sector and many SMEs.

Data from the Department for Education shows that apprentices tend to come from relatively low socio-economic backgrounds – their parents are less likely be in higher-level and professional occupations and more likely to be in semi-routine and routine occupations.

Yet a wealth of evidence also points to the positive impact apprenticeships can have.

An attractive proposition

Most professions, including accountancy, are today accessed via an apprenticeship as well as via a graduate route, meaning whilst the destination for many may be the same, the route may be somewhat different – with an apprenticeship often proving to be a more attractive proposition.

The social mobility impacts are clear too. In 2018, almost three-quarters (74%) of apprentices who had never worked before completing their apprenticeship had moved into and remained in paid work. That’s a powerful incentive for many.

As well as increasing employability, apprenticeships tend to have a positive effect on earning potential and moving on to higher levels of training.

Accountancy, ahead of the curve?

In fact, despite long term problems at the top, looking at social mobility more widely, the accountancy sector could arguably be considered ahead of the game in terms of acting to address the problem.

For example, the top two organisations in the 2018 Social Mobility Employer Index were both accountancy firms – KPMG & Grant Thornton – both of whom offer AAT qualifications as part of their Apprenticeship programmes.

Many smaller firms also hire apprentices and should be commended and supported for doing so. Likewise, many smaller firms recognise the benefits of a diverse workforce and of taking on those who are clearly bright and suitable but may not necessarily have the right grades on paper.

As Dominique Unsworth, a small business owner and SME Apprenticeship Ambassador, recently said; “Rather than focus on pre-existing academic achievements, apprenticeships enabled us to focus on recruitment based on raw talent, initiative, willingness to learn and practical skills. This in turn resulted in more socio-economic and cultural diversity within our organisation and increased our worldview and ability to innovate.”

In Summary

The message is relatively simple. The UK has a social mobility problem and it’s up to all of us – professional bodies, educators, employers large and small, politicians – to take action. In the 21st century, an individual’s birthplace or parental income should not dictate success, instead ability and potential are surely what matters most?

Phil Hall is AAT's Head of Public Affairs and Public Policy.

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