Social mobility in early careers

30 March 2023

Diversity, equality and inclusion is the No.1 challenge faced by employers when recruiting, and research shows that gender and ethnicity remain the focus area for most organisations. Social mobility on the other hand, does not receive the same attention.

As we navigate the cost of living crisis, we mustn’t neglect this aspect of DE&I which will only become more pronounced over time. The facts speak for themselves:

  • Compared to other Developed Countries, the UK performs poorly on most metrics related to social mobility and the COVID pandemic has exacerbated the situation.
  • Only 35% of UK adults believe everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their hard work will take them.
  • In 2021, 23% of FSM recipients (25 years old) had recorded earnings above the Living Wage. Compare this to 43.5% of non-recipients earning above the Living Wage and keep in mind the 42% of FSM recipients who earnt below the Living Wage.

Working towards a solution 

Sanctuary Graduates’ virtual conference (22.03.23) provided a platform for early careers leaders to share how organisations can improve social mobility from within. Additional research has supplemented and informed the following recommendations and discussion points.

Understanding the challenge

Getting to university is the first step for many, but succeeding and leveraging the opportunity it presents is the second (and often hardest). Second generation university students often earn higher starting salaries – this owes in part to the unspoken rules and aspects of middle-class culture which those low-socioeconomic backgrounds may struggle with. Heather Pasero, career consultant at the University of Southampton, highlights some of these.

Making connections and expanding networks can be a daunting and unfamiliar task. University provides a wealth of opportunities to do this, but students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds are at a disadvantage without knowing how to capitalise on these opportunities.

Placements are one such opportunity. But, how does a student from a low-socioeconomic background finance accommodation for them? And how might they cope with imposter syndrome or feeling at odds with the traditionally middle-class environment of these spaces? The prospect of ‘starting again’ having done so at the beginning of University has also been understood as a daunting and exhausting process.

However, given that completing a placement increases the chance of landing a high paid job…

‘It’s a real catch 22 for [those students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds’

Offering relocation costs or providing assistance with accommodation is certainly one way to tackle this issue.


‘If you can’t see it; you can’t be it’ 

The old adage holds truth in the contemporary. It is difficult for young people to aspire if they have no role models or success stories to inspire. As such, it’s important companies spotlight social mobility stories from employees to show students there is possibility to grow within their company. Testimonials and stories of the ‘road travelled’ by alumni for instance.

When conducting outreach, remember:

  • Use inclusive language in job advertisements. e.g. ‘graduates from top universities’ may deter those with low confidence (typically females/students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds).
  • Be open about reasonable adjustments as many people are uncomfortable about starting the conversation or asking for help.
  • Targeted emails at those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds or areas may encourage attendance at insight days/careers fairs.
  • Partner with and support charities such as The Prince’s Trust which have established networks of young talent.
  • Consider broadening your outreach to target specific schools/colleges/universities that have a high proportion of students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

‘Keep it simple’

Try not to overcomplicate the messaging when reaching college students. Plant the seed of your company’s name so that they may return to you when they begin considering careers, and focus on presenting relevant opportunities.

Recruitment and selection

Once talent is engaged in the application process, there are considerations which may encourage or deter social mobility further:

  • Providing feedback after interviews where possible. Many students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds do not have connections that can advise or coach them through the process. Foster goodwill and do your part for social mobility by giving some constructive pointers.
  • Using a contextual recruitment system to give recruiters a relative picture of academic achievement and help make informed choices. Deloitte implemented this measure and had 120 people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds join their early careers programme as a direct result.
  • Using strength-based assessments allowed KPMG to assess people’s skill and strengths, without former experience playing a part (which low-socioeconomic students are less likely to have)
  • Ensuring interviewers receive safeguarding and unconscious bias training.
  • Broadening the employability criteria. Challenging norms within an organisation can have surprising results. At Brown Jacobson LLP partners were informed 1/5 of them had degrees which would not qualify for the entry-level programme.

Looking within

Although an individual’s level of education determines the likelihood of social mobility, it is not enough. Those with the same degree have significantly different life outcomes depending on parental income. Thus, we must look at other factors: networking opportunities which build non-cognitive/soft skills, cultural barriers, geographical barriers and ability to undertake unpaid work experience.

Data is the first port of call when seeking to improve social mobility within an organisation. Brown Jacobson LLP recognises employee disclosure as the concrete basis from which improvements can be made and measured.

‘It’s never going to happen overnight. There isn’t one easy fix, it takes time, but the sooner you start the better.’

To ensure those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds within your organisation do not remain in entry level roles:

  • Offer opportunities internally so that current employees have the chance to experience alternative roles and move positions.
  • Build a culture of progression and reduce informal ways to be promoted by providing transparent frameworks for achievement and promotion.
  • Focus on inclusion and start a conversation about class that educates the wider population – the onus is on everyone to build an inclusive environment.
  • Ensure there are intermediate steppingstones of progression built into company structure rather than incomprehensible jumps from ‘shop floor to manager’.

Social mobility is the too-often neglected part of DE&I discussions, but as the cost-of-living crisis continues to increase wealth disparities, it’s time it received some attention. Taking the action points from an early careers stance is a way to form an inclusive culture from the get-go.

Contact to discuss early careers strategies for your organisation that account for this important diversity marker.


Written by Millie Finch, Account Executive

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