Last night I watched a programme about the inequality of graduate success in getting jobs; this was recommended by a colleague and I am SO pleased to have watched it. It was called How to break into the elite. Watch the programme on BBC here.
To summarise, the success of high achieving graduates (from their first degree) in finding top jobs was followed for a year. Three graduates were compared: two were from minority backgrounds, working class, and had studied at Russell Group universities. The third was an ex-public school boy who had studied at Bristol University. All three young men were extremely hard working.
Amaan was from a very deprived area of Birmingham; no one from his school went into further education and he got a First from Nottingham University in Economics. He was also a world champion kick box champion. Yet unlike many of this classmates, he didn’t have a graduate job to go onto when he graduated; in fact many of his peers had had this organised for a year. Watch the clip.
Amaan struggled to get a job (he had applied for 40+ jobs) and decided to take out more loans to do a post grad at Imperial College. In the programme he attended some interview workshops and was superb at demonstrating leadership skills, decision making and working with a team. Yet he struggled at one to one interviews.
Elvis lived in Dagenham with his mother; he attended Birmingham University and he wanted to get a job so that he would be able to support his mother financially. He struggled to get even interviews at the elite establishments and eventually had to settle for a ‘second rate’ job opportunity, not based in the City of London. Watch his interview. Elvis was an extremely personable young man and I’m afraid he was only too aware that his face didn’t fit.
Ben was public school educated and then went to study at Bristol University. He was articulate, intelligent, charming and very handsome. He knew how to work the system in a positive way, using family connections and asking, but with full respect to him, he worked very hard to both find opportunities and to shine at his job experience opportunities. He wanted to go into the media, and unpaid internships are the way in. As his family could support him financially, he was able to ‘get a foot in the door’ and gain invaluable experience for his cv as well as developing contacts. As I have mentioned before, he worked hard and grabbed any opportunity.
What was utterly heartbreaking was that for these elite jobs, recruiters were relying on a pre-decided type of graduate: a polished, finished version. You could reframe that as ‘posh’, upper middle class; and ignoring the intellectual, academic and personal qualities that other candidates could bring to a company. In other words there was a filtering system going on, which ignored virtually every candidate unless they attended a small number of schools, that were very high fee paying.
But one scene from the documentary which made me particularly angry was when graduate interns were interviewed, who were working at Channel 4: it was apparent that every single one of them had won the opportunity because they knew someone. In one case, a posh, hair flicking young woman said, my godmother’s neighbour’s wife heard about the job (or something equally obscure). In other words, it is who you know, not what you know.
The programme was hosted by Amol Ragan, who was a Cambridge Graduate. His parents were immigrants to the UK and he was encouraged to work hard and won a place to Cambridge. He asked his employer Matthew Wright (the TV and radio journalist) how he had been picked. Wright stated that he had been told to only choose graduates from Oxbridge or Durham. Amol had impressed him and he fitted the graduate criteria as well as being a minority. Both Amol and Matthew loathed the fact that ‘ordinary graduates’: i.e. everyone other than the upper middle class were being excluded from elite media and corporate jobs. Watch Amol’s opinion on social mobility.
Okay: so the vast majority of graduates, including very hard working, intelligent graduates with remarkable personal skills are being ignored at the expense of a small number of very privileged graduates. Of course some are hardworking, intelligent, invaluable potential employees, but using ‘polish’ as the main criteria for selection results in talent and potential being lost.
This was so prevalent in the 1980s, but I had hoped that meritocracy had taken over, so that the full potential of less polished candidates was recognised. And in fairness there are some companies that take the time to recruit the most talented candidates and take risks with less ‘polished’ graduates. But time and time again, recruiters state that they know what their clients are looking for, so for an easy life (and their fee) they deliver what the client always asks for. A recruiter was interviewed in the documentary, and was an unremarkable person, yet had huge power over young people’s lives.
So what can we do about it?? There are rules that the Upper Middle Classes have; connections and behaviour that are closed to everyone else. These are difficult for anyone else to break into, yet there is a hold on elite opportunities both in the City Financial organisations and the media. There are – quite rightly – focuses on students from minority groups being given more generous university offers to attract talent. I am in favour of this, since often there are talented people from deprived areas where the schools can’t cater for highly talented people. However there is focus on this in London – yet there are talented minorities in other parts of the country.
But there are highly talented candidates who are middle class – from all communities who are also being deprived exceptional opportunities despite having potential and invaluable characteristics. The only thing the decision makers can do, is to be encouraged to look beyond their own unconscious bias; what is familiar to them with polish and the fact that the senior partner’s god daughter Tabitha (with a 2:2 from Leeds) will be a better candidate than Amaan, who is a rough diamond but the potential to be an invaluable employee.
I would also suggest the following to ensure talent is being prepared and recognised:
- Mentoring available so these candidates can be supported during A Levels and university
- Access to far more information on potential jobs – for example the process of applying for law at university being made very clear at sixth form
- More successful people giving up their time to go in an speak at schools and career fairs
- I hate to say this but a ‘finishing school’ to help those who haven’t had the chance, to polish their interview and CV skills
We can’t change unconscious bias – everyone has it. But we have to change the views of decision makers and recruiters so that REAL talent rather than mediocre candidates who are polished and safe, are taken and considered seriously. I would love to hear your views on this.