Jade Azim, upReach Programme Leader, shares her view on what our new research shows about the strengths of candidates from less-advantaged backgrounds
It is an experience any young person from a working class background would be familiar with: at interview, make sure to modify your accent and hide away your perceived rough edges. To succeed in a labour market dominated by middle class competitors, you should become them.
Our latest research into the Employability Skills Gap certainly shows that more-advantaged candidates possess strengths that make them shining candidates in terms of important employer competencies. Our research, based on our getEmployable survey of over 1,500 participants’ career knowledge and experience, exposes entrenched advantages for young people from privileged backgrounds. It demonstrates that those from private school are twice as likely to have secured useful work experience than those from state schools. It also shows that those from private school are 50% more likely to say their careers advice was helpful compared to state schooled pupils.
On this basis, it’s easy to see why those from private schools scored higher on our measured competencies of ‘career knowledge’ and ‘work experience’, reflecting a clear advantage with access to extracurricular activities and opportunities. These advantages in competencies highly regarded by top employers has deep ramifications for the wider labour market. It entrenches the dominance of a top 7% in our most prestigious industries and firms, and thereby reinforces the pay gap and pay ceiling that has made the UK one of the most socially immobile nations in the western world. We should be seeking to redress these disparities, which is exactly what upReach works so hard to achieve.
But our research unearths a surprising insight into the strengths of less-advantaged students, too. With all these obstacles and challenges facing less-advantaged young people in the UK, it would be easy for a working class candidate to feel overwhelmed. Rather, our research shows that state school students score significantly higher for ‘grit, resilience, and determination’.
Rather than viewing these unmistakably huge barriers that stand in their way to success as immovable, less-advantaged students are far more likely to show a determination and steadfastness to overcome them and excel. This ‘grit’ follows them into university and the workplace. This is shown in the fact state school students actually perform at higher levels in university than their private school peers.
The significance – and potential – of this finding should not be underestimated. The implications are considerable for both young people and for employers.
For young people, the findings suggests that we should not – be it as charities, schools, careers services, universities, or parents and carers – shy away from the narrative of socio-economic obstacles. We ought to be explicit about the resilience that a working class story can give to a candidate, and rather than ask they try to escape their background, suggest instead they should be proud of it and learn to recount their unique narrative. It is less about the assimilation into middle class culture, and more about bringing your whole, true self to interview.
The implication for employers, meanwhile, is that they should consider cultural and behavioural change. Grit, resilience and determination should be held in as much esteem as other competencies, and students with a story to tell about disadvantage and determination should be embraced. To do this, employers must use context in recruitment, in a way that universities have been doing for many years with excellent results. They must relax A-Level requirements where they have them, and make changes to address confirmation bias at interview. They will reap the rewards as a result.
The correlation between social class and ‘grit’ is an important conversation we should all have. A story of overcoming obstacles should be embraced by everyone, and the demands for social modification should no longer be placed on the shoulders of a less-advantaged candidate; they should be asked of employers instead.