New research claims young people are steering clear of professions commonly seen as being dominated by upper and middle class employees. Is accountancy doing enough address social mobility?
The UK has still not shaken off its class-based prejudices and it's stifling the economy, according to new research by the graduate recruitment platform Debut. The company found a third of young people surveyed for its “social immobility in graduate recruitment” report are put off joining middle and upper-class businesses.
Meanwhile, it’s a different story for those from “better off backgrounds” who are 80% more likely to be in a professional job than their working class peers. The costs of the 2.5m working class people disenfranchised from joining these businesses equates to £270bn per year, according to Debut's research.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of young graduates are so stifled by the bourgeois expectations of their potential employers that they feel they have to fundamentally change who they are to make a good impression.
James Bennett, CEO of Debut, called on UK businesses guilty of this “professional exclusion” not to miss out on the huge talent pool of diverse young people. “It is imperative that businesses must do more than just pay lip service to diversity and inclusion and start taking real action.”
Accountancy in the grips of a recruitment crisis
These results are particularly concerning for the accountancy profession which is in the grip of a recruitment crisis. The need for employers to cast a wider net is backed by early insights from the 2019 Accounting Excellence Awards, where the challenges of recruitment plague even the most innovative echelons of the profession.
The results of the survey suggest that the profession should do more to dismiss the archetypal image of the pinstripe suited accountant. But for some time now, however, professional bodies have tried breaking the “not for me” stigma that may prevent a diverse talent pool. The ACCA released the Purpose and Profession report in 2018 which found that in the past the profession had been a “closed shop” for those who “don’t fit the mould”.
The ACCA’s efforts to make accountancy a genuine option for people from all backgrounds mirrors the intention of ICAEW’s president Paul Aplin. In his inaugural speech in June 2018, Aplin put social mobility to the top of his agenda, putting his focus on the barriers that are still perceived as blocking many people’s path into the profession.
“I want to see more young people – especially those who think, or have been allowed to think it isn’t for them – have the chance that I’ve had and discover the ACA as the key to unlocking a great career that can change their lives too, and help them, in turn, change the lives of others,” he said.
As the social immobility report says, an important step in bridging this gap is through school and college outreach such as work experience programmes and targeted internships for those from less advantaged backgrounds.
It’s not just about class
The problem, however, is not consigned to class, with 61% of the surveyed young people wanting businesses to do more to hire people from diverse backgrounds.
It’s a point brought home in the Debut social immobility report by the assistant HR manager at accountancy firm BKL, who pointed out that 19 of the 20 company partners at the firm are male.
EY’s student employer brand and attraction manager Andri Stephanou also picked up on the importance of the visibility in opening the doors to potential candidates from diverse backgrounds: “It’s really important for people to be able to see different role models in practice, it supports ambition and positive aspirations, for instance thinking ‘I can do this too, I can achieve success’.”
Meanwhile, diversity within the profession was the subject of an intense debate earlier this month, as an all-male Accountex panel stoked controversy before the event had even started.
Accountants don’t recognise this immobility
For the most part, the AccountingWEB community didn’t recognise any of this social immobility in the profession.
Gainsborough feels the profession is open if you have qualifications, but the problem in young people take up is down to their motivation. “I went to a careers event at a school recently for 14-16 year old students. Most of them just wanted careers in drama or sports - lots of glazed over eyes when accountancy came up - nothing at all to do with class.”
Susanna Russell-Smith has not encountered class bias from the firm she joined 50 years ago, although at the time they did only have one woman partner. “They were still a bit doubtful about employing women though, she said, “and never allowed me to go off on an away audit in case I had too much fun with my fellow male articled clerks out of hours.”
However, Paul Benny does see the need for more role models in the profession. “If ‘minorities’ consider the profession and see that it is populated by people who are not like them, most will look elsewhere. We lose out on talent, and society remains or becomes more segregated,” he said.
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.