Social mobility: Is it still about who graduates know, not what they know?
I read an article in the Sunday Times recently, and it got me thinking about social mobility. When I started my career and was looking for a job, I remember my girlfriend and I had very different experiences.
My path was relatively straight forward. Back in the summer of 1997, I’d just graduated with a degree in microelectronic engineering.
The only thing I needed to do to get a job was to apply to a recruitment consultant who advertised on the back cover of an industry journal. During an initial conversation where they asked me about my skillset, my degree and what I wanted to do, they also asked me about where I would like to work.
My girlfriend was living in London, and I was keen to live with her – when I said this the response was, “that’s just as well – because we have nothing for you in your area” – West Yorkshire. This was an issue in engineering – but it appeared it was even more acute in the more general graduate career space.
The recruiter pestered me to write and upload my CV, and within a space of a couple of weeks, I had attended four interviews (all with travel expenses paid) and had three job offers. The caveat – all of them were in London or at least within the M25. The interviews were practical tests to ensure I could do the job based on the skills I’d directly acquired throughout my degree. Could I create, and describe the behaviour of code, circuit diagrams etc. it was a fairly simple transition applying my degree – but back then it did get me thinking, what would have happened if I hadn’t or couldn’t move to London for a job?
My job hunting was utterly different from my girlfriend’s experience of finding a job in PR. It seemed that getting a paid position in PR straight out of university 25 years ago was impossible.
Who you know
My girlfriend managed to secure an unpaid internship with one of the large London PR agencies, by sheer coincidence this just happened to be with the same agency her father’s company engaged on a retainer. She undertook the job for six months, the hours were long, the work was rubbish, and she had to support herself throughout this time. With this experience, she was then able to apply for a paid job – again using the network of contacts she’d now built during her work experience.
Her selection for interview mandated experience of events organisation, which she was able to demonstrate because she had organised events at University. She was also expected aged 21 to be comfortable herding 20+ paparazzi at a photoshoot, entertain journalists over lunch and deal with the demanding CEOs of businesses who’s companies products and services weren’t appearing in the right magazines.
Throughout those first years of work, my life was one of two halves. All-day spent in an office doing design engineering stuff with my culturally diverse yet all-male colleagues, then sometimes out in the evening and weekends at glamorous launches for London hotels, restaurants and services with my girlfriend and her colleagues. They were very different – all-female, all smart, switched on, savvy women… The subject their degree was in was entirely irrelevant – but all of them had the social capital to land themselves a role in PR although they all needed the job to live. They often talked about “flopseys and mopseys” women who lived rent-free in a family property in Kensington or Chelsea existing off their trust funds and not needing the salary did the job because doing nothing wasn’t acceptable.
Have things improved?
I want to say that things have got better in the last quarter of a century, but from what I read, the evidence is that things are now worse. I think the right degree can still open the door to a career in some fields – but many other roles often rely on “whom you know”, not “what you know.” and having to support yourself through months or even years of unpaid internships to secure a paid role.
Sometimes, for all the chat and the posts around social mobility and fairer society, I wonder whether things are fairer than they were or have the goalposts for access to an entry-level career moved even further away for people without the right level of social capital.
Over the years we’ve interviewed thousands of people for tech roles, all of whom want to work in technology, but for many their chosen academic path has either made that difficult or excluded them entirely from our industry.
We also believe no-one should have to take a loan or burn through savings to join the Academy. We pay a salary from day one throughout training, and we provide accommodation during training until placement.