Do we really need a middle class? How the UK Government should respond to the challenge of job polarisation

Women sitting at her desk doing paperwork

By Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, former government advisor and HR expert Kevin Green gave a TEDx talk entitled “Why our jobs matter now more than ever before”.

In his talk, he explains that technologies such as artificial intelligence have transformed the labour market and, unlike previous industrial revolutions, old jobs are not necessarily being replaced by better forms of work.

Instead, he warns, the economy is experiencing ever-increasing ‘job polarisation’. In this labour market, highly skilled, in-demand workers benefit from higher wages and flexible working conditions, whilst middle-income earners are finding their jobs disappear, and competition grows for low skilled, often manual work.

What does the research say about this phenomenon?

In 2017, the OECD published the report ‘Future of Skills and Work’, which highlighted that labour markets are polarising within some G20 countries. In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%).

As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown. In particular, the report found that countries experiencing skills shortages are paying higher rates for staff with desirable skills and that greater competition for low skilled jobs is holding down wages for the bottom half of earners.

Greater regional inequalities are also noted as a possibility, as employers are likely to locate in areas with a high concentration of high-skilled workers – which are often very different to the areas experiencing job losses.

However, the report does suggest that some groups may benefit. For example, it highlights that disadvantaged millennials, who have grown up with technology, may have an advantage over older, less tech-savvy workers.

Is technology the only factor leading to job polarisation?

Economist Andrea Salvatori has conducted extensive research and argues that job polarisation in the UK is far more complex. In a 2015 paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, he argued that although technology is a factor, the growth in high skilled jobs can be explained by the increase in the number of graduates since the 1990s.  Similarly, in a 2016 paper, he found that routine employment did not decline in organisations which had adopted technology and that workplaces which specialise in high skilled employment had grown dramatically, from 30% to almost 50% between 1998 and 2011.

One theory highlighted is that of MIT scholar David Autor, who suggests that while technology might be replacing workers in certain tasks, it’s also complementing them in other areas which are more cognitive and difficult to automate.

In addition, Professor Maarten Goos has suggested that offshoring and the global competition for labour has been a factor. In his view, companies have taken advantage of lower wages in foreign countries, particularly in middle earning jobs such as back-office administrative functions and in customer service positions. Highly skilled jobs have been less affected as the supply of skills is less readily available.

What are the social consequences of job polarisation?

Mr Green’s Tedx Talk is less about the economics of job polarisation, and more about the social issues which may stem from this divided economy. He recounts his own experience, describing himself as a ‘late bloomer,’ and recounting his journey from an administrative middle-class job in Wandsworth council to gaining promotion through further study.

For him, the real concern is that the chasm between low and high skilled jobs means that it will be increasingly difficult for some groups in society to progress in their careers. In particular, he highlights graduates looking for their first positions, as well as mothers returning to the labour market after a period out to raise children.

Research has also shown that increased job polarisation might be leading to discontent amongst low skilled workers, and that this could partially explain recent political divisions between those living in large metropolitan cities and those in left behind regions.

So, how should the UK Government respond?

Academics Dr David Hope and Dr Angelo Martelli recently investigated the role labour market institutions play in tackling wage inequality in modern economies. By analysing the economic data for 18 OECD countries from 1970 to 2007, they attempted to prove that national labour market systems could protect wages. They found that:

strong labour market institutions, in the form of coordinated wage setting, employment protection legislation, and high wage bargaining coverage, reduces the effect of the expansion of employment in knowledge-intensive services on income inequality.”

In addition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that there is a need to tackle inequality locally by focusing on the bottom of the labour market, particularly by improving working conditions for low-skilled workers.

Mr Green takes a similar viewpoint, and argues the solution is a ‘revolution in lifelong learning’. This means creating labour market institutions that help people trapped in low skilled work, so that they are aware of the opportunities available to them, and potentially providing funding to support them on their journey.


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Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


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The rhetoric of social mobility continues… yet disadvantaged pupils continue to fall behind

skills gap

By Heather Cameron

Despite continued investment to improve social mobility, it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.

Recent analysis of government data shows the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has actually worsened over the past decade.

The research, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that while there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium), this has been slow and inconsistent. The gap has also been shown to vary between areas.

And, perhaps most worryingly, for pupils described as ‘persistently disadvantaged’ (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80% or longer of their school lives), the gap has widened – leaving these pupils over a year behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school and more than two years behind at the end of secondary school.

Widening gap

The attainment gap is evident in the early years, continuing to grow throughout school.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be 19.2 months on average behind their peers at the end of Key Stage 4. While this represents a narrowing of the gap by 2.7 months since 2007, this is not consistent across the board. And the gap for ‘persistently disadvantaged’ pupils increased by 2.4 months over the same period.

The EPI analysis indicates that the disadvantage gap grows by five months between Key Stage 1 and 2, and by 10 months between Key Stage 2 and 4.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are shown to fall even further behind at all phases. For them, the gap grows from six months at the end of Key Stage 1, to 12 months by the end of Key Stage 2 and 24 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

It is argued that the differential rates of progress pupils make need to be tackled to stop the gap from growing throughout the stages.

Indeed, the issue can’t be solved with a one size fits all approach, particularly as there is significant variation across the country.

Variation

The disadvantage gap between local authorities ranges from no gap to seven months in the early years, five to 13 months at the end of primary school and one month to over two years at the end of secondary.

The gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East at around 16-18 months at the end of secondary. In comparison, the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West experience a much larger gap of 22 months. The largest attainment gap was found on the Isle of Wight, where disadvantaged pupils were 29 months behind their peers on leaving secondary school.

The gap was also found to become worse in rural areas. In Cumbria and Northumberland, for example, the gap widens from nine months at the end of Key Stage 2 to over 25 months by the end of secondary.

But there is also evidence of particularly good performance and notable improvements made in recent years. In Newham, disadvantaged five year-olds perform as well as non-disadvantaged five year-olds nationally, on average. And in Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead, the gap for disadvantaged secondary school pupils has closed by over six months since 2012.

This would suggest that there is certainly potential for dramatic improvements in reducing the gap in other areas.

Government action

As an historic problem, successive governments have taken action to address it via investment and targeted interventions. The current government is also working to address the issue, including through Opportunity Areas.

The EPI suggests that while this may be a good start, there are other areas across the country that are not covered by these where “social mobility is stagnating or even worsening”. And it also highlights that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

In addition, recent commentary from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised concerns over schools focusing on exam results at the expense of the curriculum, leading to many disadvantaged children being shut out from acquiring a rich and full knowledge:

“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”

It has been suggested that government pressure to improve performance has led to a focus on exam and test results. But Spielman argues that this is a mistake on the part of school leaders as it should “not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils”.

Final thoughts

Clearly, while it shouldn’t be forgotten that progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done if the disadvantage gap is to close any time soon.

As the EPI concluded: “If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.”


If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like our previous blogs on education-related topics.

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A teacher recruitment shortage in deprived areas – are financial incentives the answer?

by Stacey Dingwall

In February, we reported on the publication of the House of Commons Education Committee’s report on teacher recruitment and retention in England. The report suggested that there are “significant” teacher shortages in the country, and highlighted data indicating that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year, and 30% leave within five years.

Recruitment and retention regional trends

The Committee’s report focused on issues of recruitment and retention in terms of subject and regional areas, but didn’t comment on regional trends. This is an issue which the previous head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, raised in his annual report for 2014/15. The report cites findings from surveying carried out by Ofsted which suggest that headteachers see teacher recruitment as a “real problem”, due to a shortage of trainees coming through which has resulted in “huge” competition for them between schools. “Unsurprisingly”, the report states, the majority of trainees are opting for well-performing schools in more affluent areas.

This isn’t just an issue among new teachers. According to research carried out by the University of Cambridge last year, more experienced teachers are also less likely to be working in schools in areas of high deprivation. The analysis found that teachers working in more advantaged schools have, on average, 18 months more experience than those in the least advantaged schools.

Financial incentives

The University of Cambridge’s findings were presented at the Sutton Trust’s 2016 Best in Class summit, alongside polling from the NFER which found that teachers believe that offering financial incentives is the best way to attract teachers to more deprived schools. 63% of those surveyed also supported bonuses for those teachers who improve their pupils’ results.

The Social Market Foundation also supports the provision of financial incentives for teachers who choose to work in schools with high levels of pupils eligible for free school meals, and has proposed an additional £530 per year for primary teachers, and £1,300 for secondary level teachers. Their 2016 report, Social inequalities in access to teachers, found that, in addition to having a higher proportion of inexperienced teachers, secondary schools in areas of higher deprivation are also more likely to have teachers without an academic qualification in their relevant subject.

The Talent Transfer Initiative

Evidence on the impact of providing financial incentives for teachers is limited, however, and that which has been published provides mixed results. One initiative that has produced results which indicate that ‘teacher merit pay’ can produce positive outcomes is the Talent Transfer Initiative in the US. TTI involved teachers with a proven track record of improving pupil attainment in deprived areas in districts of cities including Miami and Los Angeles, transferring to schools with the highest levels of deprivation. If a teacher stayed in their new role for two years, they received $20,000 across five instalments, regardless of whether pupils’ test scores improved. Over 90% of the teachers stayed in their new jobs for the required period, and 60% continued after the trial ended. Pupil attainment was increased by between 4 and 10 percentile points for those taught by the transfer teachers, compared to a control-group of teachers.

A crucial thing to note, however, is that less than a quarter of the 1,500 teachers identified as being eligible for the initiative chose to apply to participate. This is down to the issue of what motivates teachers; in the UK as well as the US, research has consistently shown that teachers are more motivated by working conditions and improving pupil outcomes than pay. In its report, the Social Market Foundation also acknowledged that it is difficult to know just how large financial incentives would need to be to attract experienced teachers to schools with high levels of free school meals (FSM) eligibility. And as the controversy over school funding rages on – and the country faces more electoral upheaval – this is a calculation that is unlikely to be made anytime soon.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Why do more girls than boys go on to higher education?

Metal signpost indicating directions of three world famous universities - Harvard / Cambridge / Oxford

by Stacey Dingwall

In February of this year, ministerial guidance was issued to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on doing more to widen the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education. This was accompanied by the issuing of new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges which, for the first time, specified that they should be doing more to widen access among white men from economically disadvantaged groups.

The new guidance came after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns about a lack of diversity in the country’s higher education sector in an article for the Sunday Times in January. While David Cameron’s main criticism was of the lack of students from ethnic minority backgrounds being admitted to elite universities like Oxford, he also noted that “white British men from poor backgrounds are five times less likely to go into higher education than others”.

What does the evidence say?

The Prime Minister’s statement about the gender gap is backed up by two key sources. In their 2015 End of Cycle report, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that, while entry rates for both male and female students increased, female entry rates increased three times faster than those of males. At 35.4%, the admission rate for 18 year-old female students was 9.2 percentage points higher than male students, making them 35% (proportionally) more likely to attend university. This equates to 36,000 fewer young men than women entering higher education each year and is the widest gap yet recorded by UCAS – in 2007, woman were 27% more likely to attend university. Furthermore, the report notes that female students from the most disadvantaged areas were 51% more likely than their male peers to enter higher education in 2015. Also highlighted is that while female students across all ethnic groups are more likely to attend university than males, the gap is significantly smaller than that between white students: the next greatest gap is between male and female black students, at a ratio of 1.4. This gap has also narrowed since 2006.

In July of last year, the Sutton Trust’s Independent Commission on Fees published its final report. The Commission was set up in 2011 with the aim of analysing the effect of increased tuition fees on students. While the report found that the number of students applying to university had not been significantly impacted by the increase, it did find that certain groups had been adversely affected. These groups included male students from disadvantaged areas: the report suggested that they are 48% less likely to enter higher education than female students in the same circumstances. The Commission also found that this gap is widening rather than narrowing, indicating that there are areas of the country in which males are facing particular cultural challenges, which could result in “the entrenchment of low income and lack of opportunity”.

Why does this gender gap exist?

The Commission’s findings were widely reported in the press at the time. The key question: why has this happened? Analysis of last year’s GCSE results in England found that the gender gap between boys and girls is at its narrowest in decades, and male pupils’ A-level results are also only slightly below the female average. So why are so many male students choosing to end their educational careers at this stage?

According to Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, the potential of these students is “somehow being let down by the school system”. Cook’s argument suggests that schools are not doing enough to adequately prepare and inspire their male students to continue their education after school. Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, however, has taken an opposing stance on this, and suggests that the narrowing of the attainment gap between male and female pupils can in fact be attributed to schools more closely monitoring the performance of boys. He also believes that changing the focus of assessment from coursework to more exams has in fact resulted in the system now being in favour of male pupils.

The impact of the introduction of tuition fees must also be acknowledged. Speaking to the Guardian in March of this year, male pupils at a school in Ipswich where double the national average of pupils are in receipt of pupil premium funding expressed their unwillingness to enter into years of substantial debt for a course where there is no guarantee of a job at the end. This sentiment perhaps explains why the number of students taking up paid apprenticeships increased by 63.5% between 2010 and 2011. A different group of students from south London also raised the issue of social class. A lot of these boys would be the first in their families to attend university. Their admissions of not wanting to stand out academically for fear of what others may think, or seeming like an “outsider’ reveal the impact that growing up in a disadvantaged area can have on aspiration.

Others suggest that the problem lies in the structure of the post-compulsory education system. Courses in which female students have traditionally dominated, such as fashion and beauty, are increasingly being changed from college courses to three-year undergraduate courses, while qualifications for bricklaying and plumbing continue to be studied at further education and apprenticeship level. Recent years have also seen a focus on campaigns to try and encourage more female students to study more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) -related courses, for example, without equivalent targeting of male pupils.

What is being done to reduce the gap?

Following the guidance issued to the OFFA, universities minister Jo Johnson announced that the government had also asked universities to move towards a name-blind admissions system by 2017, and would introduce legislation to scrutinise the process in order to reveal where offer rates for the poorest students were particularly low. Johnson explained that the guidance asks universities, in return for the access agreements that allow them to charge fees up to the maximum of £9,000, to focus more strategically on groups, such as white British boys, with the lowest participation rates by “spending smarter” and focusing their outreach activities where they are most needed.

The answer, it would seem, is for all stakeholders to “do more”. However, despite the government setting a target to double the amount of poorer pupils admitted to university, a specific campaign aimed at narrowing the divide has yet to be announced. It could be argued that placing the onus on universities to increase the number of admissions of white male students is the wrong answer – some, like Tony Sewell, former teacher and CEO of education charity Generating Genius, argue that this is a problem that needs to be addressed at a much earlier stage, as the gap shows signs of developing from primary level.

Overall, it would appear that addressing issues around social class in the system is key to stopping the divide from increasing any further. While Oxford University rebutted the Prime Minister’s assertion that it did not do enough to attract pupils from all walks of life, the figures speak for themselves: the most advantaged students are still 6.8 times more likely to go to the most elite universities than disadvantaged students. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission regularly reports on a growing social divide in the country, including a system which continues to grant access to the elite universities according to family background rather than aptitude and ability. As the Commission’s latest state of the nation report notes, there is little chance of the government meeting its target until outreach activity becomes more focused on the areas where access is particularly low.

Graduating into a brighter future?

Image from Flickr user Luftphilla, licensed under Creative Commons

by Stacey Dingwall

Post-recession, the employment situation for UK graduates has not been great. Following the economic crash, headlines and statistical releases alike screamed about how bad it was out there for the recently graduated. Graduates were portrayed as either unemployed or underemployed, i.e. forced to accept roles for which their qualifications were not required or unpaid internships. With the end of the recession however, has the situation improved?

The graduate job recession

In 2010, the number of graduates in full-time work, three months post-graduation was 51% – its second-lowest level since 2003 (57%). And in 2009 The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) was reporting that the number of graduate vacancies being advertised had fallen by up to a quarter since before the recession.

With record numbers of graduates now competing for each vacancy, and competing not only with their own graduating class but also with earlier cohorts, it could have been concluded that the era of the traditional graduate employment route was on its way out.

A return to form?

According to recent figures, however, things are looking up. Previewing the second 2015 update of its Graduate Recruitment survey, AGR describes the current graduate market as ‘buoyant’, and notes that the findings of the previous survey indicated an 11.9% increase in graduate vacancies on the previous year. These findings are backed up by the September 2014 edition of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s (HESCU’s) What do graduates do, which described the employment prospects for 2012/13 graduates as ‘dramatically improved’ compared to those of their immediate predecessors, with their unemployment rate six months after graduating down at 7.3% from the previous year’s 8.5%.

Additionally, the most recent release of the High Fliers graduate recruitment study suggests that those graduating in 2015 are doing so into the “most attractive graduate market in a decade”, and predicts 8% more vacancies than the previous year. It also notes that the class of 2015 are the first to graduate having paid tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year; this has led to the end of the image of students merely partying their way through their time at university, with the majority now focused on securing a promising career for themselves from as early as first year.

The new face of the graduate job

The prospect of graduating with tens of thousands of pounds of debt appears to be proving quite the motivation for today’s students. Rather than waiting until their final year to seek out internships and careers advice, High Fliers reports that firms are now taking on first year undergraduates in placement roles. Building up a relationship with a desired employer as early as possible is now the key way of securing a job post-graduation according to the report, with those with little or no work experience described as having “no chance” of receiving the offer of a place on a firm’s graduate programme.

AGR’s chief executive Stephen Isherwood has also pointed towards this trend, suggesting that graduate recruitment is being replaced with ‘student recruitment’, as those leaving university face competition from those still at university who have already been hired by employers for apprenticeships or have succeeded in finding an employer to sponsor them through the rest of their studies.

Another issue, as highlighted by Gerbrand Tholen, is the changing definition of what constitutes a graduate job. He notes that the previous understanding of what made a graduate occupation (those that combined expertise, strategic and managerial skills and interactive skills) has been abandoned in favour of defining the extent to which the role utilises specialist, orchestration or communication expertise.

This has led to a blurring between the lines of graduate and non-graduate roles, and also issues with compiling official statistics on the number of graduates employed in each arena. In 2014, the director of High Fliers, Martin Birchall, criticised the Office for National Statistics for not updating their definition of a graduate job since 2002, after they released data which suggested that 47% of recent graduates were not working in jobs which required a higher education qualification. This issue is further compounded by the issue of ‘over-education’ and ‘under-employment’, and the question of whether employers have been able to benefit from a more highly skilled workforce.

The graduate class problem

An important thing to keep in mind is that reporting on graduate labour market trends tends to focus primarily on the most general of findings – considering graduates as a homogenous group. This is particularly true in terms of the social backgrounds of graduates: research has found, and is continuing to find, significant differences in the labour market experience for graduates from working class backgrounds and their more socially privileged backgrounds. Until this much wider issue of a lack of social mobility within the graduate labour market can be addressed, it is perhaps too early to describe the situation as ‘buoyant’ – at least for everyone.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on education and employment trends; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading on the topics covered in this blog *

‘Graduate jobs’ in OECD countries: development and analysis of a modern skills-based indicator (LLAKES research paper 53)

What do graduates do? Employment review, IN Graduate Market Trends, Autumn 2014, pp12-14

Graduates’ experiences of non-graduate jobs: stop gaps, stepping stones, or dead ends?, IN Graduate Market Trends, Summer 2014, pp6-8

‘You have to be well spoken: students’ views on employability within the graduate labour market, IN Journal of Education and Work, Vol 27 No 2 Apr 2014, pp179-198

The gap between the proportion of young graduates from professional backgrounds who go on to a “graduate job” six months after graduating and young graduates from non-professional background

We need to talk about graduates: the changing nature of the UK graduate labour market

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Hitting the glass floor: the impact of social background on earnings

 

By James Carson

How much does family background matter when it comes to your job prospects later in life? That’s the focus of a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which examined the relationship between social background, childhood academic ability and adult success in the labour market.

The study looked at the lives of 17,000 people born in Britain in the same week in 1970 to examine the impact of social background on earnings. It was specifically looking for evidence that initially low attaining children from affluent backgrounds were more likely to succeed in the labour market than their more gifted peers from less advantaged families.

Demography and destiny

The study found that :

  • low attaining children from better-off families have a greater chance of being highly successful in the labour market;
  • high attaining children from less advantaged family backgrounds are less likely to be in a high earning job as an adult.

The report  suggests that more advantaged, better-educated parents ‘hoard the best opportunities’ for their less academically inclined children to help them overtake more gifted but poorer peers.

Examples of how they do this may include:

  • investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications;
  • providing better careers advice and guidance;
  • placing a high value on ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience, which employers ultimately value;
  • prioritising school choice;
  • helping their children into internships and employment through informal social networks.

Breaking the glass floor

Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, believes the findings highlight a social scandal:

“It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top. This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling.”

Among the suggestions the report makes to remove barriers that block downward mobility, are:

  • reducing inequalities in parental education through adult skills programmes;
  • ensuring children from less advantaged backgrounds have access to the support and opportunities available to their peers, including good careers information and guidance;
  • improving school quality in disadvantaged areas, improving access to high-quality schools and universities and removing financial barriers to higher education;
  • taking action to reduce ‘opportunity hoarding’: including tackling unpaid internships, and encouraging employers to remove barriers in the recruitment process that inadvertently prevent those with high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds being successful.

Levelling the playing field for children from less advantaged families won’t happen overnight. But the report underlines the importance of making an immediate start to ensure adults of the future achieve success because of merit and effort rather than parental wealth and status:

“A society in which the success or failure of children with equal ability rests on the social and economic status of their parents is not a fair one.”


Further reading

We’ve blogged recently on related issues – widening participation to higher education and how inequal access to work experience opportunities is limiting social mobility.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Young people’s quest for work experience hampered … by lack of work experience

By Stacey Dingwall

The UK Commission for Education and Skills has released a new report, Catch 16-24: youth employment challenge, which suggests that today’s young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience.

According to the UK Commission’s analysis, most English regions are lagging behind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of the number of employers offering work experience opportunities to young people. The Humber, with one of England’s highest youth unemployment rates, is identified as being a particular work experience ‘blackspot’, with only 29% of employers offering placements.

The new report comes a year on from the publication of another report from the UK Commission, Not just making tea: reinventing work experience. This outlined the vital importance of work experience not only for young people, but for employers themselves, and dispelled common myths that often deter employers from offering opportunities. Multiple case studies showed the benefits enjoyed by companies, large and small, when they invest in young people through work experience.

Why then, a year on, does the UK Commission’s latest research still indicate that only 20% of employers across the UK currently offer work experience to schools, and only 12% to colleges?

A barrier to social mobility

The report suggests that location is not the only factor hindering young people’s chances of obtaining work experience – personal contacts also play a significant role. The need to ensure that employment outcomes for young people are not constrained by their social or ethnic backgrounds (“it’s not what you know, but who you know”) has also been raised by both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in the last year.

The Sutton Trust’s Internship or Indenture? briefing supports the UK Commission’s description of London as the “internship capital of the country” and places the total cost of undertaking a six-month unpaid internship in the capital at £6,081 (including transport costs) and £5,078 for doing so in Greater Manchester. The importance of undertaking internships and work experience placements in order to gain entrance to professions such as law and finance is highlighted, alongside the fact that only those from wealthy backgrounds are likely to be able to bear the costs of working for free for any significant period of time.

In order to tackle ‘elitist Britain’, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recommended that both schools and employers should do more in order to ‘close the gap’ in the provision of work experience opportunities to pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

Employers want new recruits to have work experience

The ‘catch’ for young people in terms of work experience is laid bare in the UK Commision’s new report: 66% of employers rate experience as a ‘critical’ or ‘significant’ factor when it comes to recruitment decisions yet less than a third of this figure are currently prepared to offer opportunities.

The impact of this on the UK’s continuing high rate of youth unemployment is highlighted – the UK has “German levels of adult unemployment but Eurozone levels of youth unemployment”. The UK Commission has previously used case studies of the work experience systems of countries including Australia and the Netherlands to show the positive benefits of integrating work experience into education for youth employment rates.

So, what will it take for UK employers and educational institutions to adopt closer relationships in order to improve the work experience offer for young people?

Improved collaboration

Despite indications that the number of employers taking on apprentices is increasing, and encouraging examples of collaborations between schools and employers, Katerina Rüdiger of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) believes that the government should do more to facilitate employer-education relatationships. Reacting to the new UK Commission report, Rüdiger called for the government to “create a role in local authorities so they can work with the National Careers Service to provide resources and broker relationships between young people, schools and employers to generate routes into work”. The involvement of government in facilitating this type of collaboration has also been described as vital by the UK Commission.

The UK Commission has described the December 2014 announcement of a new careers and enterprise company for English schools (with the aim of encouraging employers to link directly to pupils throughout their education) as “promising”. This follows its previous call for the rest of the UK to follow the lead of the Scottish Government which, through its commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce, is aiming to achieve links with employers for each of the country’s secondary schools over the next three years.

Whether these initiatives will have the required impact on the UK’s work experience offer for young people remains, of course, to be seen in another year’s time.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on work experience and youth employment. Items of interest include:

Work experience: benefits and impact (Series briefing note 44)

Undergraduates’ memories of school-based work experience and the role of social class in placement choices in the UK

Making work experience work: top tips for employers

Work experience doesn’t work, says Wood Commission

The effects of work experience during higher education on labour market entry: learning by doing or an entry ticket?