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Professional Services Week - The Case For Bothering by Hilary Smyth-Allen

News Categories: Professional Services Week

This week is Professional Services Week 2017. It marks 5 days of focused outreach activities from businesses and individual volunteers with secondary schools. The aim is to inspire an interest in and demystify the routes into the wide range of careers available in the professional services sector in Greater Birmingham. But why bother? Will it have any impact? What about the rest of the year?

These are all good questions and should be asked whenever planning any kind of intervention. Let us start then with the first of these in this article: why bother?

It is no secret nor surprise to say that the professions lack diversity and do not reflect the demographics of our wider society. The evidence base and case for change are well established, with seminal reports published in 2009 and 2012, led by Rt Hon. Alan Milburn such as “Unleashing Aspirations” and “Fair Access to the Professions” [1] respectively. The latter report recalled that:

“… tomorrow’s professional is growing up in a family richer than seven in ten of all families in the UK. 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. At the top of the professional tree especially, the default setting was to recruit from far too narrow a part of the social spectrum. That closed-shop mentality was bad for the professions and bad for any prospect of improved social mobility in our country.”[2]

Having made practical recommendations to address key barriers identified, the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission’s (SM&CP Commission) progress report noted some improvement, but not enough to be able to say that the potential for the growth in professional employment to produce social mobility dividend had yet been realised. Further and faster work was required to turn around this picture and the fortunes of the upcoming generation.

Fast forward to 2017 and has that much changed? Anecdotally, I personally feel that both the rhetoric and behaviour in the professional services sector is moving in the right direction, but it’s not rushing. And it’s a complex picture not always entirely directly linked nor motivated by social mobility gains.

For example, the 2007 financial crash and subsequent years has established a wider appreciation for diversity in the boardroom as counters to organisational group think and poor abilities to internally scrutinise business behaviours. But there isn’t a latent talent pool waiting to be appointed onto boards, so businesses are having to think about how you can create such a pipeline of talent.

Another example is stimulating business innovation. I happened to attend a session led by Professor Richard Crisp from Aston University a while back. He’s a social psychologist specialising in the psychology of social influence and behaviour change, with a particular interest in diversity. And whilst I am no doubt underselling the fruits of his extensive research, the message was clear: diversity is good for business because people who are exposed to a more diverse peer group are more creative and innovative.

Similarly, school leaver programmes and alternative routes to entry into the professions are increasingly common. This is definitely to be welcomed because university is increasingly expensive such that the HE sector has its own social mobility challenges to grapple with as tuition fees escalate. A cynic though could easily make the case that this trend in recruitment in professional services businesses is merely about maintaining competitive advantage as competitors access untapped pools of talent earlier.

In each of these examples (and I could give more), social mobility should be the indirect beneficiary of these overtly commercial motivations; particularly given the narrow pool of talent from which our sectors reputedly select historically. Like it or hate it (depending on your personal politics), alignment of commercial realities with moral imperatives – such as the case for fair access to the professions – can make a significant difference to the pace of change. So then, has anything actually changed?

Earlier this year, the SM&CP Commission published its latest analysis into accession to – and also progression within – the professions.[3] New data sources from UK Labour Force Survey reveals greater granularity of the true picture and whilst the report notes the continued importance of this agenda to the Government (noting the changes in colours leading it over this period), the current situation makes for disappointing reading once again.

“The odds of those from professional backgrounds ending up in professional jobs are 2.5 times higher than the odds of those from less advantaged backgrounds reaching the professions. For those from working-class backgrounds, the odds of following in their parents’ occupational footsteps are 2.3 times higher than the odds of those from more advantaged backgrounds moving into working- class jobs. We also find that 45% of earnings inequalities are passed across generations.”

Depressing reading nearly a decade on. And it goes on…

“Moving from who gets ‘in’ to who gets ‘on’ we find evidence of a powerful and largely unacknowledged ‘class pay gap’ within the professions; those from working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,800 less than colleagues from professional and managerial backgrounds. This is partly explained by differences in education and occupational segregation, but even when comparing individuals with the same education, occupation and level of experience, those from working-class backgrounds are still paid £2,242 less than more privileged colleagues. This penalty is exacerbated for upwardly mobile women and ethnic minorities who face a ‘double disadvantage’ in earnings.”

Finance professions are also noted as having a particularly marked class pay gap. Oh dear.

So why bother with a campaign like Professional Services Week? As Rt Hon Alan Milburn said in his foreword all those years ago, change is “a long-term endeavour and it will require a genuine national effort. It is not merely a job for government”. There is so much more to be done, but at least Greater Birmingham’s professional services sector isn’t burying its head in the sand. We are both bothered and bothering.


[1] Unleashing Aspirations, 2009 []

[2] Fair Access to the Professions, May 2012 []

[3] Social Mobility, the Class Pay Gap and Intergenerational Worklessness: New Insights from The Labour Force Survey, Jan 2017 []