Fair Access to the Professions: what is the role of employers and HR?

Former minister Alan Milburn announced the findings of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, a cross-party group looking at elitism in the professions. The panel concluded that top professions such as medicine and law are now beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. Tara Craig asks the experts what employers can do to ensure the end of this closed-shop mentality.

The HR director

Graham White, Westminster City Council

“This long-awaited and anticipated report should come with no surprises for the HR fraternity. But while we should not be surprised with the findings, we need to be more involved with those challenges that fall squarely at the feet of the HR department.

“It’s not good enough to let Alan Milburn point at the professions alone; we are the people who need to ensure that our organisations have effective and fair selection processes. We are the stewards of career succession planning, and there is no substitute for openness and transparency in selection and development processes, to ensure we get the best people for the job based on their potential and capability, and not just the colour of their school tie.

“I say this is a job well done. There is a chasm between where we are and where we need to be, and HR has a choice: do we wait for others to drag us screaming and shouting into a new order because we are afraid to have a view that might differ from our professionals? Or do we uphold the principles of our profession and demand the ability to make our organisations sustainable and drive social mobility to the very top of our agenda? I know what I want to do.

The business psychologist

Stuart Duff, partner, Pearn Kandola

“Organisations can help employees – particularly those involved in recruiting and promoting talent – to identify and understand their own potential for bias. Research makes clear that we are capable of managing our own bias, but only once we are aware of its impact.

“Organisations can also consciously challenge some of the ‘bad habits’ they have fallen into over the past few years. Many large-scale recruiters seek the safest high-yield solutions when recruiting prospective employees. But a mindset that says ‘we had a good year recruiting from that university last year, so let’s use them again’ can set up a self-fulfilling and perpetuating cycle of finding similar employees in the future.

Just as importantly, they could consciously break from the belief that high grades at A-level are still the best indicator of future success.

“A further issue concerns attraction at grassroots and the degree to which the organisation thinks differently and resourcefully to widen the net to potential future employees. At low cost, professions could be providing more sponsorship opportunities to a wider range of schools and colleges, rather than providing support to the friends and families of senior employees. They could be offering funding to support work experience and shadowing.

“But each of these, and the many other options available, requires motivation. Change, of course, depends on the belief that there is value in addressing the wider social issues raised in the report, and that long-term benefits outweigh short-term priorities. This is a real test for corporate social responsibility policy statements. It is idealistic to think that we can achieve genuine fair access for all potential employees, but anything that organisations can do may just increase the chances of finding self-motivated, driven and genuinely high-potential employees in the future.”

The panellist
(Panel on Fair Access to the Professions)

Neil Sherlock, partner, KPMG

“The report concludes that the opportunities for new jobs in the professions could be at least seven million by 2020. However, to ensure these jobs come to the UK rather than Germany, China, India or the US, we need real change – change that builds on the best practice in accountancy, law and medicine to ensure that the brightest and best are inspired to become the new professionals. Change that ensures that the top jobs in the professions aren’t restricted to a few with the ‘right’ connections from the ‘right’ schools, but open to all who aspire to and can achieve excellence.

“To build this and ensure we have a more balanced economy, the UK needs action on many fronts. The government needs to invest in education and skills that give people second, third, fourth chances; a careers service that counters stereotypes, and professions that reach out to those with ability and talent from disadvantaged backgrounds at an early age.

“Accountants can build on the footprint in schools to put forward a powerful message about the value of the profession, for example, for building a business career.

“It is about consistent, joined-up action that will break down ‘closed shops’ and mean that tomorrow’s generation of talented young people will be part – as in the 1950s and 1960s – of a new wave of social mobility.”

The law firm HR manager

Janette Wallace, senior HR manager, Beachcroft LLP

“It’s certainly true that, traditionally, many of those entering the legal profession would have had a similar profile in terms of social background and education. However, law firms are now making swift and significant advances to create greater diversity and provide opportunity for those from less-privileged backgrounds.

“Typical initiatives include providing outreach and scholarship programmes for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and working in partnership with organisations such as Pathways to Law/The Sutton Trust.

“For us, it’s all about removing barriers to entry – we’ve been involved in a number of mentoring programmes and we’ve done a lot of work to make sure we’re not restricting ourselves to the traditional routes to market when recruiting.

“The legal landscape will change dramatically over the next few years in response to the Legal Service Act and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)’s proposed changes to training contracts, and this can only be good news in terms of greater accessibility to the profession for would-be lawyers from all backgrounds.”

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