Shaping tomorrow’s workforce: improving social mobility with job-ready education

4 minute read

The chasm between educational preparedness and employment readiness has never been more pronounced. Star of The Apprentice Tim Campbell, Amazon head of talent acquisition Cath Possumai and Matrix CEO Mark Inskip share their insights on how to bridge this critical gap, create a job-ready generation and improve social mobility in the process

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Matrix is a leading provider of workforce management solutions that aims to revolutionise the way employers attract, recruit and manage their indirect workforce

Sian Harrington

School girl climbing ladder out of street of terraced houses and into a professional career

In a Britain where climbing the social ladder seems more elusive than ever, children from impoverished backgrounds face unprecedented challenges. According to research from thinktank IFS last year social mobility is at its worst in more than 50 years.

The path to social mobility is closely linked with access to quality education and employment opportunities. Bridging the gap between these two critical sectors is paramount for fostering a society where one's background does not predetermine their future. 

In the latest episode of the Work in Progress podcast from Matrix, star of BBC Apprentice, founder of Bright Ideas Trust and National Interview Week ambassador Tim Campbell, vice chair of the Institute of Student Employers and head of talent acquisition for Amazon EMEA Cath Possamai and Matrix CEO Mark Inskip delved deeply into why the chasm between educational preparedness and employment readiness has never been more pronounced. This disconnect not only undermines the potential of our youth but also poses a significant challenge for employers in search of skilled talent.

As host Roger Clements notes, there is an intertwining of social mobility with educational and career disparities, highlighting how “generationally there are different stigmas attached to different career routes”. 

Part of the issue is the gap between education and work. Campbell points out that he doesn’t see enough employers engaging with education. “You hear the same old  response – it’s really difficult to engage with school, it's so hard to find the right person in these environments. But at the same time there's a whole critique around the lack of skills individuals have when they come into the workforce,” he says. 

One problem, he suggests, is that we are forcing individuals through “a sausage machine of the educational system that we have”,

“This is quite antiquated given the massive leaps and bounds the workforces have seen in the last 10 years, let alone the past 20-odd from when I was last at school. And with technology, artificial intelligence, all these other aspects impacting our day-to-day work we've still got kids rote learning how to navigate the French Revolution. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he says.

One of the challenges for employers is how to act as an “interpreter” – sharing what best practice looks like – as well as understanding how they can take advantage of funding to access talent that hasn’t gone through the university system, says Possamai. 

But students also need to come into the workforce with the skills needed for the future, she adds. “The reality is most kids – and most of us even – are going to be doing many different jobs over the course of our career. So, understanding that you might do something in your 20s, you might do something else in your 30s and that's fine, there is a real imperative to come into the world of work with an attitude that you are going to keep learning.

“And the best skills you can have are agility, openness to change, creativity and all of those things that get called soft skills – they're critical, important skills. And that's the stuff that's not being taught and is  difficult to teach.”

Inskip concurs, adding: “Younger people in particular don't ask two really simple questions enough – why is that,  and so what? Those four words. It's an interesting measure of work maturity. They don't ask questions, just go through that ‘sausage machine’ and then all of a sudden they come to a work environment where all I want them to do is ask questions and be curious. And we don't teach this.” 

Matrix connects people to work and Inskip says he is focused on trying to bring underrepresented groups into the talent network it offers. However, his insight  that working with more than 1,000 recruiters - "it's always the same candidates. We even see the same people coming from  different agencies… these people just never appear on the candidate lists " - calls for a systemic change in how talent pools are cultivated and recognised, reinforcing the need for diversity beyond traditional recruitment paradigms.

He observes that employers always look for who is ‘best’. ‘We've got to educate business leaders on how to redefine what best is. It would be super easy for me just to go out and hire a bunch of people that look and think just like me. I want people who irritate me a little bit, think differently from me. ‘Best’ is a very dangerous path to go down when you're trying to hire people.”

Allied to this is the way employers select the need to change. “Interviewing an 18 year old in a competency based way is ridiculous, quite honestly,” says Possumai. “You have to assess for potential, assess for mindset, assess for attitude and that will then allow you to give opportunity to a broad range of individuals.” 

But an added complication is that the intersectionality of all of these conversations is complex to navigate. “Social mobility should not be a switch out for some of the other inclusion programmes that we've spent a huge amount of time building up and delivering,” Campbell warns. 

The conversation underscored the need for a collaborative effort between educational institutions and the employment sector. Here are five key lessons:

1. Engagement between education and employers

The modern job market demands a workforce skilled not only in technical knowledge but also in soft skills and adaptability. Establishing strong partnerships between educational institutions and businesses is crucial but the conversation needs to start earlier. Employers will never have enough time, so building relationships with educational establishments needs to be intentional.

2. Enhanced career education

Effective career education is not merely an add-on but a core component of the educational framework. This means going beyond the basics of CV writing to interview techniques and an understanding of how the job market is changing. 

3. Fostering soft skills

In a world where automation and artificial intelligence are becoming commonplace,skills like emotional intelligence, creativity and interpersonal communication are more critical than ever. Prioritising these within education equips individuals from under-represented backgrounds with the tools necessary for upward mobility, fostering equality of opportunity.

4. Promoting practical experiences

Theoretical knowledge must be complemented with hands-on experience. Initiatives like National Interview Week are a big step in the right direction, but there's a need for more comprehensive programmes that offer exposure to real work environments. Ensuring that every student, and not just friends and family, has access to practical work experiences and internships is crucial. These experiences not only build skills but also networks, which are often a key barrier to employment for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

5. Continuous feedback and adaptation

The job market is constantly changing, necessitating a dynamic approach to education and career readiness. Employers have an important role to play here, supporting initiatives like National Interview Week which help young people build confidence and interview skills. As Campbell reflects: “As employers it’s an immediate feedback loop because hopefully that person whom we support through National Interview Week comes back as an interviewee and they're bloody brilliant. They nail it. The standard goes up because there's an intervention that helps you to make that reality. Then we all win.”

Work in Progress – The Matrix Podcast features expert guests sharing their experiences and debating the challenges of an ever-evolving employment landscape. Listen and subscribe here.

Published 13 March 2024

With technology, artificial intelligence, all these other aspects impacting our day-to-day work we've still got kids rote learning how to navigate the French Revolution. It’s incredibly frustrating

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