Asked to sum up what his job is about, Matt Sparkes chooses one word: aspirations. As the global community investment manager at Barbican-based corporate law firm Linklaters, Sparkes oversees a number of projects aimed at giving schoolchildren from the neighbouring borough of Hackney an experience of life in a large commercial enterprise.
Alongside running a debating competition among primary school children aimed at improving communication skills, one of Sparkes’ main focuses is a work experience programme for about 20 A-level students from the largely deprived London borough.
He says: “We recognise that, with the best will in the world, the chance of these students becoming lawyers is modest. But our programme is about giving them an experience of life in a large City firm and raising their aspirations.
“For many, this will be the first time they have stepped into a corporate environment. Every day they will have passed big, glass-fronted buildings with security guards outside, but never thought about going inside. It’s a chance for them to see that the people who work here are just normal people like them.”
Sparkes says a lot of resources go into ensuring that the work experience programme, which is now in its second year, is about more than making tea and photocopying, and that the students are given projects to get their teeth into.
He says other young people may get an informal work experience through family members or friends who already work at the firm, but it is the students from Hackney who are treated to the most comprehensive view of life at the company, including the work of other departments such as HR, finance and marketing, and time in court to see law in action.
And while he admits the initiative aligns with a business strategy of recruiting from a diverse and local workforce, he also says it is driven by a shared belief among many of his colleagues that they have a “collective responsibility to awaken the imagination” of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
By enabling social mobility in this way, Linklaters is in step with a growing number of employers and politicians who believe this is an important issue. All the main political parties have made pronouncements on the topic, culminating in the launch last month of a government white paper called New Opportunities, which sets out the government’s agenda for “capturing the jobs of the future and ensuring fair chances for everyone to get on and get ahead”.
While much of the paper concentrates on education and training, there is also a focus on the role of employers. Indeed, on the same day the Cabinet Office announced the formation of a Panel on Fair Access to Professions – a committee of 18 people representing the major professions, such as law, medicine, finance and media – charged with “identifying barriers to access to the professions for people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds”.
The panel, which hopes to report in the summer, is expected to look at areas including state-funded internships for graduates from low-income families, and the ending of a self-perpetuating system where work experience placements and first jobs go to the children of colleagues, friends and family.
And according to John Philpott, public policy director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), there are good macroeconomic reasons why the issue of social mobility needs addressing. He says while many employers have carried out good work on diversity, this has often focused on race and gender, and largely ignored people from poor backgrounds.
Good return on investment
But, he says, by offering previously excluded people an opportunity to climb up the economic ladder and aspire to higher things, employers and society as a whole get a payback far greater than the original investment.
“By giving people a stake in society, they are more likely to invest in their own skills and education over time,” he says. “But if people find that many of the professions are closed shops, is it any wonder that they see no point in helping themselves?”
But how do you define a disadvantaged background? According to Peter Boursnell, acting chief executive at the Social Mobility Foundation, it is any young person whose parents’ combined income is less than £30,000 per year.
This is the cut-off point for young people hoping to earn a place on the foundation’s increasingly popular internship programme. The organisation is a charity that takes bright, underprivileged lower sixth formers and matches them with employers from the top professions.
Boursnell says getting these young people into law firms, financial institutions, government departments and hospitals prior to applying to university is crucial.
“Getting the right job is often dependent on taking the right course at the right university,” he says. “And being able to show impressive work experience can make all the difference in securing the right university place.”
Demand for the foundation’s programme is certainly growing since it ran its first internships in 2006. Last year it placed about 200 candidates in London exclusively, but this year Boursnell expects up to 500 students from numerous major cities around the country to take part.
“We estimate there are up to 3,000 students every year who could benefit from our programme, and our perception is that more and more organisations are keen to get involved as it offers them access to the bright young people they are looking for,” he says.
One employer who sings the foundation’s praises is Sue Lawrence, a director at financial services company Capita Trust. She took on one intern in 2008, and this year is preparing to welcome two more who are scheduled to spend two weeks this summer working with staff across the business.
“Social Mobility Foundation internships are something I’m keen to encourage more of across Capita. It puts us in touch with young people who may never have come across us before, but it also ties in with our corporate social responsibility ethos.
“We’d all like to give employees two weeks off to work for a charity, but that’s not going to happen. This is a way of staff doing something for charity that has a positive impact on the business, too.”
But with the economic crisis occupying everyone’s minds, is facilitating social mobility a priority for employers struggling to keep the wolf from the door?
In the short term, no, says Philpott. But he thinks change is in the air. “Things aren’t going to change overnight, but what is encouraging is the degree of open-mindedness and forward thinking many organisations are showing in this area.”
Case study – Demos
For Jen Lexmond, a researcher at think-tank Demos, supporting young people through internships is an important way of enabling social mobility.
She looks after the intern programme at the organisation, which employs about 20 full-time staff and eight interns at any one time.
“Internships have become an ever more important transition period for young people between formal education and formal employment,” she says.
“The problem is that the vast majority of internships are unpaid and located in London, meaning that your socioeconomic background and location immediately become more important than your abilities and qualifications when being considered.”
Although, as a charity, Demos struggles to pay a living wage to interns, it does pay expenses (up to £75 per week). It has also set up ethical guidelines for the programme to ensure a beneficial developmental experience for interns and to reach as wide a pool of applicants as possible.
Lexmond adds: “Recruitment is managed centrally through a staff intern co-ordinator and decisions are never made based on personal recommendations or connections.
“Applicants are able to choose between full-time and part-time internships to ensure that those who need to can support themselves with part-time work during their internship.”
Lexmond also stresses the importance of giving interns support, flexibility and challenging work. “They respond by giving us their enthusiasm, their intelligence and their hard work. The outcome is hugely mutually beneficial, and the added support given to interns yields great economic benefits as well,” she says.