Professions must be open to all backgrounds, says government adviser

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Professions such as law, journalism and medicine should be made open to applicants from a more diverse range of backgrounds, according to a government adviser.

Alan Milburn, former Labour minister and the coalition Government’s social mobility adviser, has said that more effort needs to be made to make careers available to candidates from poorer backgrounds.

Milburn was speaking at the launch of a report into so-called “closed shop” professions, which singled out sectors such as medicine, law and journalism as being among the most inaccessible to young jobseekers from poorer backgrounds.

However, while praising the civil service for its successful recruitment of candidates from diverse backgrounds, Milburn also pointed out that no profession had yet fully “cracked” this, and that little progress has been made since he published his previous report into this area – Unleashing Aspiration – three years ago.

In the introduction to today’s report, Milburn said: “Three years ago, I found that for all the efforts that the professions had made to expand the pool of talent from which they recruited, they had actually become more – not less – socially exclusive over time. The consequence was that too many able children from average-income and middle-class families – let alone low-income families – were losing out in the race for professional jobs.”

Milburn’s 2009 report highlighted a number of barriers that it claimed prevented fair access to professional careers. These included “unfocused aspiration-raising programmes, poor careers advice, lack of school choices, artificial barriers between vocational and academic education, unfair university admissions, limited work experience opportunities, non-transparent internships, antiquated recruitment processes, and inflexible entry routes”.

Today’s report said: “Across the professions as a whole, the glass ceiling has been scratched but not broken. The professions still lag way behind the social curve. If anything, the evidence suggests that since 2009, taken as a whole, the professions – despite some pockets of considerable progress – have done too little to catch up. The general picture seems to be of mainly minor changes in the social composition of the professions. At the top especially, the professions remain dominated by a social elite.”

The report pointed out that there are still numerous areas for improvement and that, despite the recommendations set out in Unleashing Aspiration, there was no evidence that any profession had carried out a review of its recruitment practices with the intention of increasing fair access.

Milburn said: “This is profoundly disappointing and suggests that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, all too often the reality is that the fair-access agenda remains sidelined in most professions. That is unacceptable and must change. The professions should now consider what steps they need to take. They need to massively up their game. The Government should do more to pressurise the professions to act. And the new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission should report annually on what, if any, progress the professions are making.”

The report was welcomed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), and suggested that a new approach to apprenticeships might be the answer. Katerina Rudiger, CIPD skills and policy adviser, said: “At the front line of recruitment processes, HR professionals are in a unique position to improve social mobility across all professions.

“To improve social mobility and build a sustainable talent pipeline, employers certainly need to look beyond the top universities but they should also be looking at alternative routes into professions. Vocational routes, such as apprenticeships, give employers access to bright young talent that can be trained and developed according to the needs of their organisation, and give young people without a university degree a first step on the career ladder.

“Employers need to move away from the mindset that apprenticeships only apply in certain professions and sectors and see them as a way to grow their own workforce. Indeed, the HR profession itself is developing a Higher Apprenticeship in HR to widen access to our own profession.”

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