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How to approach social mobility on a global level

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 25 Feb 2022

Managing social mobility in a global organisation requires coherent guidance that applies across multiple offices, geographies and societies.

A framework for the guidance of management is the best policy across a large network, says Sarah Churchman, Chief Inclusion, Community and Wellbeing Officer at PwC. 

“Some of our territories are probably more advanced with their social mobility policies than others, given the global nature of our network,” she says. As a result, in July this year PwC will launch its new reframed global inclusion strategy, which will prioritise social inclusion. The framework will help drive member firms to ensure that they are prioritising best practice on social mobility.

“We have a mature programme on social mobility, which is quite advanced in the UK, as is the programme in the US, which is tied into the CEO Action for Racial Equity programme. We are trying to make sure that all member firms are aiming to match these agendas,” she says.

The challenges are vast. “It is a case of getting each firm to buy into a high-level set of priorities on the difference we want to make as a large organisation. They then use the framework that we have provided to put a strategy in place that fits the area they are located in,” says Churchman.

Social mobility challenges vary by territory, from the degree of equality that the territory has and the level of social mobility to cultural, legal and social differences. “We also provide best practices, often based on what we have done in the UK, as working examples to better help explain our thinking.”

Outreach work

PwC has used its geographic spread in the UK to target those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, in social mobility coldspots that have been identified as ‘opportunity areas’ by the government. It uses its footprint and people to reach out to local communities for mentoring and local support programmes to increase young people’s chances of employment.

The overarching objective as a large employer and business leader is to reach into communities to have a positive impact, build trust and solve problems, says Churchman. “All of the inequities that the pandemic has thrown up, as shown in our research, reveal the negative impact on women and ethnic minority communities,” she adds.

In Bradford, PwC’s office has grown by tapping into a local labour market suffering high unemployment. The business has committed to outreach projects in local schools for digital, financial, numeracy and employability skills to help grow talent the firm will need in the future.

“There’s an element of hope that, as a result of this outreach, some will join our organisation because they may never have heard of PwC before, and the interactions will be better for the community as they become more employable,” says Churchman. “There may be a perception that you have to go to university to join PwC, but that’s not the case at all – we ask staff who have reached us through this route to share their stories when doing community work to raise awareness of this route.”

Aspirational employers

The firm hopes that it can use the efforts in Bradford as an example of best practice on a global level for education and aspiration.

“All of the work that we do in our locations, with the outreach in schools, is about raising aspirations and letting students know what jobs are out there and what opportunities are open to them,” says Churchman. “We connect with students that perhaps get their first work experience and get a first-hand look at what an office is like, and meet people like them who may have done this a few years ago. Our experience is that this can be transformational for young people’s lives.”

As a result, PwC has expanded its school-leaver programme and the uptake has been strong – the company hires about 500 school and college leavers every year in the UK. The direction of travel for recruitment has been an increased intake of school leavers, providing alternative routes into employment as education policies in the UK over the past decade have increased the cost of higher education.

“That’s been a focus for us for a number of years as young people have looked at whether they can afford to go to university. A lot of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are ruling out university because of the debt they would incur.”

A global approach

Global firms must manage local policy and events, whether it’s intake to firms in the UK or to racial equality protests in the US that saw the inception of PwC’s CEO Action programme. “This had a number of strands to it, one of them was to lobby for certain work for public policy changes in the US,” says Churchman.

Measuring social mobility on a global scale is a challenge because of the amount of data required to make good decisions. “You can only set good targets if you’ve got data,” says Churchman. “That is a big challenge for how social mobility is managed. We are quite clear on that in the UK in terms of best practice advice from the Social Mobility Commission. As we ask people to share their social mobility background at the point of recruitment, then we’ve got pretty good levels of data disclosure,” says Churchman.

Global data is more challenging because it requires better data collection, but generally the same principles apply. There is no golden rule, and as PwC shows, global social mobility is a case of global firms measuring their own progress and making plans as a result.

“We have the parental occupations of 80% of our workforce, so with that kind of data we can do some interesting number crunching on representation, selection and social mobility targets,” adds Churchman.

“We don’t take external targets on social mobility – we monitor our internal trends and how we are going to improve our firm internally and on our own levels, which helps us deliver five-year plans on social backgrounds.”

Social mobility and inclusion

As organisations struggle to attract the talent they need, there is a business need to widen the talent pool. At the same time, they recognise the need for diversity of thought in order to survive and thrive.

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