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PATHWAYS & PITFALLS BY HILARY SMYTH-ALLEN

News Categories: leadersProfessional Services Week

As we pass the midpoint of Professional Services Week 2017 and my feet welcome the well-earned rest from walking around the city, I’ve been reflecting on the conversations had over the past three days with participating students, teachers and business volunteers. Undoubtedly the energy and enthusiasm has been high from all sides. We’ve shared insights, experience and tips and in most cases, a passion for this city…except the last part of that statement appears to be more true for the volunteers and hosts and less so for the young residents taking part.

Professional Services Week is absolutely about promoting access to the professions and the vast array of associated jobs within professional services businesses. But today has reminded me of the need to ‘sell’ Birmingham, particularly to Birmingham’s young citizens as a key part of the Week’s core messages. Typically, this need takes two forms, neither of which are that surprising, but they do require different approaches.

On the one hand, as a place-based sector, we need to explain the opportunity on the door step to the bright young things with their eyes firmly on the future. As the evaluation data from last year’s PSW 2016 revealed, countering common prevailing rhetoric, not every child growing up in this city in our less advantaged communities is lacking aspiration. Such talent is highly mobile and we need to find ways to get/keep them here.

To this point, our own research at BPS Birmingham with Warwick Business School – The Future Commission – identified a need for a values-based proposition to attract and retain talent. Five years on, as I walked with the students around offices that looked more like studio flats than businesses, it is clear that this observation of the future is really playing out. Work-life balance is a critical deciding factor, as too are pay income vs. affordability of a quality lifestyle equations and the alignment of personal values and that of their employer.

The second form of needing to sell Birmingham is the ‘aspiration piece’ because growing up in this city isn’t always the winning hand portrayed by our bubbling young professionals. For the well-meaning volunteer from our community of upwardly mobile individuals, it is a tricky balance. Business outreach activities do work by and large, because encounters with the world of work reduce chances of becoming NEET and increase earnings overall. However, as my good friend and colleague Kathryn Lennon-Johnson (B.E.S.S) says so often in her work with the built environment sector, raising awareness isn’t enough. Showing someone a Rolls Royce might make them want it more than before; but it might not and it certainly doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to get one once you’ve taken a ride.

Encouragingly I have observed many a firm moving beyond a show and tell strategy to their work place visit. There has been a concerted effort on behalf of our participating businesses to show and explain how to get there. Some firms have invested in technology to make their programmes of outreach and work experience opportunities more transparent, accessible and engaging to the target audience. Additionally, the hosts were trying to engender an understanding of the breadth of roles available e.g. marketing, in-house catering and admin support, not just the accountants in an accountancy firm.

The more interesting observation for me is that the number of firms without school leaver programmes appears to be dwindling significantly.

The Future Commission emphasised the need for alternative routes to entry to the sector. The rationale was to reduce barriers to entry as part of a strategy to realise competitive advantage from the latent asset that is the young talent pool in the city in order to mitigate predicted future skills shortages put under pressure by business growth from inward investment and accelerating retirement rates. There are many more different career paths compared to five years ago when the Commission was taking evidence and professional bodies are looking closely at their routes to qualification to encourage greater access. Baby steps perhaps, but the sector is opening up and that is heartening to observe.

Despite such positivity though, I have a concern. I fear that we are in danger of adopting the same techniques for promoting the new careers pathways as we have developed for graduate recruitment. For example, centralised recruitment processes of school leaver places akin to a graduate programme. This assumes a level of mobility and confidence that is far less likely in a 16-18 year old compared to a tertiary educated 21+ year old.

We are entering new territories in professional services and with the arrival of the Apprenticeship Levy this year, the pace of change in this arena will accelerate. However, unless we are wise to this behavioural and cultural trap, the new pathways will be full of the same talent that would always have been hired….just a bit younger and minus the university debt. On the day when the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission published its latest report damming the lack of progress made and calling on the professions to make socio-economic diversity a priority, we cannot allow this to happen. [1] Initiatives like Professional Services Week are therefore not only valuable for the richness of experiences on offer to all those who participate, but for the lens that they hold up to the collective picture to keep us on track for the future.

[1] Social mobility policies between 1997 and 2017: time for change. June 2017