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A plan in place

Levelling up with a location-based approach to social mobility

By Karl P Edge

It matters where you come from and what your parents do. Research continues to show that these circumstances impact on the opportunities that are available to each of us across our lifetimes.

In the UK, the link between socioeconomic background and adult outcomes is stronger than it is in many other developed countries.

Barriers to social mobility are estimated to cost the UK £39bn each year, impacting on our productivity, our mental health and our life expectancy.

As is widely acknowledged, people from more affluent backgrounds have greater opportunities and life chances than those from relatively less advantaged starting points.

So, the focus of many employers on their efforts to improve social mobility, by building more diverse, inclusive and accessible businesses, is valuable. Broadening opportunity across the population has the potential to improve business outcomes as well as social ones, boosting the country’s prosperity.

The geography of opportunity

Geography impacts social mobility. The 2021 Social Mobility Barometer, from the government’s Social Mobility Commission, showed that three quarters of adults believe there are large differences in the opportunities available in different parts of Britain today.

The UK’s uneven economic geography limits progress, while brain drain – driven by the perception that many young people need to relocate to build careers – is a major challenge, especially as it risks supporting a negative cycle.

Covid-19 has exacerbated many regional inequalities, so it is particularly welcome that businesses, policymakers and institutions are converging around the concept of a place-based approach.

The phrase “stay local, go far” features in the opening gambit to the government’s levelling-up white paper that, in its diagnosis of the UK’s regional imbalances, recognises that geography can have a significant impact on life chances.

The centrepiece of the levelling-up agenda – its 12 policy missions for 2030 – are aimed at spreading opportunity widely across the UK. It indicates that the government is thinking as much about supporting people in less-connected rural and coastal areas as it is concerned with the imperative to regenerate towns and grow global cities in each region.

The white paper was preceded by the Social Mobility Commission’s highly significant The Long Shadow of Deprivation report, published early in the pandemic, which considered the postcode lottery impacting social mobility in the UK. Its analysis showed that individuals aged 28 from disadvantaged families in England’s social mobility “cold spots” earn, on average, just over half the amount of those from similar backgrounds in the most mobile areas.

There is increasing recognition that somebody’s progression and life chances can be impacted by where they live or where they start, and that policy interventions should be directed towards spreading opportunity more widely across the UK.

Breaking down barriers

Our sector – professional services – is now well represented at the top end of the Social Mobility Foundation’s Social Mobility Employer Index, with KPMG proudly ranked at number two in the UK.

The City of London Corporation has been commissioned by HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to take forward important work looking at boosting socio-economic diversity at senior levels in the financial and professional services industry.

At KPMG we have been prioritising social mobility for over a decade. Last year, for the first time, we published our socio-economic background pay gaps, and made a commitment to ensuring 29 per cent of our UK partners and directors come from a working-class background by 2030. We also launched a new national Social Mobility Network, empowering colleagues from less privileged backgrounds to achieve their development goals and also to share their experiences.

Such interventions are helping us, along with our industry peers, to dismantle barriers to access and progression, but of course, wider factors limiting opportunity remain.

The business of place

KPMG’s heritage lies in the UK’s regions, which are also home to many of the clients we work with, and our local presence informs our approach to social mobility.

From a recruitment perspective, our firm needs to be accessible to talent in every area of the UK because we keenly value the local insights and passion our people bring to our regional markets. By hiring the smartest people from the broadest backgrounds, we reflect our diverse range of clients and we perform better.

Our national presence, with 22 offices across the UK, means our people are connected across our network, wherever they are in the country. This means they can access opportunities, progress their careers, and work on client projects across the firm, without having to relocate.

The pandemic accelerated many new working behaviours, but we have always worked flexibly between home, client sites and our offices. Our approach supports efforts to level up because it allows us to stay local, within our communities, more often, while staying connected with our offices across the UK’s towns and cities.

A community partner

We take a holistic approach to progressing the social mobility agenda – with a focus on people, places and partnerships.

In addition to the changes we have made and continue to make within our business, such as increasing our apprenticeship schemes, our local and regional partnerships are key to making a greater difference in the places we work. For example, KPMG is the anchor lead for the Business in the Community Place campaign in Rochdale, working alongside other businesses and local stakeholders to develop a long-term road map to address local inequality. We also have strategic partnerships with the University of Leeds and the University of Nottingham aimed at driving regional economic growth.

As noted, the Social Mobility Commission’s analysis has shone a light on the UK’s coldest spots and has helped us to ensure that 28 per cent of the beneficiaries of our community programmes are from those struggling areas; this year, we are aiming for that to rise to 30 per cent.

Our industry, companies across the UK, and policymakers increasingly understand that background matters, and so does geography. The converging of actions across the public and private sectors can deliver a step change in meeting the UK’s social mobility challenge, and widen opportunity for all.

Karl P Edge is Midlands regional chair and office senior partner for Birmingham, KPMG UK

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