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2 January 2024updated 03 Jan 2024 9:07am

How can employers work with government to break down the class ceiling?

Early support for transitions into work and lifelong learning are key.

By Spotlight

The Labour Party have made “breaking down the barriers to opportunity” one of their five missions for government. At present, a child on free school meals will, by age twenty-eight, earn half as much as their peers who were not on free school meals. Evidence shows that education is still a big factor in people’s life outcomes.

The New Statesman and our sponsors Nationwide and BAE Systems brought together a panel of experts at our Path to Power conference to discuss how this mission for a fairer Britain can be realised by the next government. The event was chaired by Alona Ferber, editor of Spotlight, and the panel included Alison McGovern MP, the shadow minister for employment, Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, Gillian Churchill, CEO of Movement for Work and Debbie Crosbie, chief executive at Nationwide.

“At the heart of Labour’s missions is the challenge of getting our country growing again,” said Alison McGovern MP. “And we don’t just want growth at a national level, but in every part and region of our country.” She said that Labour will focus on improving schools through more funding and a wider curriculum, but pointed out that expanding breakfast clubs will also give parents more employment choices. Labour also wants to reform the job centre so the focus is on the right job and career for each person. “It’s not good enough for our people to say, ‘just any old job will do’,” McGovern said.

Stephen Evans said that the next government needs to focus on lifelong learning as part of the opportunity mission. “As the economy changes, and people have longer working lives, this is more and more important,” he said. Evans pointed out that adult education in England is facing severe budgetary constraints. “There are a million fewer adults improving their skills each year,” he explained. And people with lower levels of skills, lower qualifications and lower incomes are disproportionately affected. Similarly, people with long-term conditions and disabilities need support to get into work, but there is too much of a punitive approach. “There’s a real mismatch between being ever harsher on a small group of unemployed people, versus actually offering some help and support,” he said. Finally, Evans said government should work to help reduce the risks and costs associated with people moving into a new career.

“We have nearly 800,000 young people who are classified as Neets (not in employment, education or training) currently, across the country youth unemployment is 12.7 percent,” said Gillian Churchill, CEO of Movement to Work. Churchill, who is seconded to the charity from BAE Systems, believes that young people need more support to enter employment and to thrive. This includes building skills through training, but also confidence, resilience and role models in order to help them achieve their true potential.

“The first ask I’d have of government is really focusing on employability skills,” said Debbie Crosbie, chief executive of Nationwide. “We get so many young people who we see great potential in, but they just don’t know where to start,” she added. Crosbie said that another challenge is ensuring there are different routes of entry into working in financial services. Currently over 50 percent of people employed in financial services come from a higher social economic backgrounds, she said. Even once people get into work, they can face challenges from a lack of support in their roles, meaning it can be hard to retain them. “Giving them additional ongoing support is really critical,” she said. Nationwide now provide coaches and mentors to young starters, “we stopped looking at which university people went to, which college they went to, [and] we’ve paid attention to their life experiences,” she said.

Churchill said this reflected her experience of providing support, too. “A lot of the young people that we work with, sadly, might not have peers or family members that can help to guide and support them,” she said. As a result, it is employers that are increasingly stepping into that role. “I think that kind of mentorship piece is absolutely key,” she said.

There was a question from an attendee on the link between stagnant economic growth and inactivity and health, specifically long-term health conditions. “We know that you don’t get a strong economy without strong public services. And the 7.8 million people on waiting lists is a terrible situation for people waiting in pain, and a disaster for our economy,” McGovern responded. She added that a lot of Labour’s reforms are about better economic governance at the town and city level in order to address the local factors in this too.

There was another question on how to give young people exposure and pathways to emerging sectors in the green economy, AI and quantum computing. “I think this is the real opportunity, not just for our young people, but also for our businesses,” Crosbie said. Part of this is improving the connection between early careers training and development and getting people into organisations that can support careers in these areas, without necessarily the need for a degree, she said. Another is reforming the apprenticeship levy, she added.

One of the ways Movement to Work has responded to this is to work with other employers to go into youth hubs, so that young people don’t need to go into an intimidating environment like a job centre, Churchill said.

Evans highlighted the challenges faced by the UK’s 300,000 young carers, who are more likely to get poorer GCSE results. “I think there’s a specific group there for colleges, universities, the job centre, and also employers where we could just do a lot better because they’re getting terrible outcomes and providing 20 billion pounds of unpaid care every year,” he said.

“I think there is a huge job for us all to do to build people in this country a better path to better incomes, more skilful, more creative, more autonomous work, and a future in which businesses aren’t crying out for staff, whilst the time and talent of some of our people goes to waste,” McGovern said.