Recruits into the traditional business professions, the law and accountancy, have typically been drawn from a middle-class or privileged world far removed from the experience of those from poor, culturally diverse or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Fixing this challenge, finding the right way to open up professional and business services (PBS) to young people of talent and ambition, is not only a question of social justice. It is also a matter of business necessity. The lion's share of future growth is going to come from exports and inward investment - a workforce that better reflects potential international clients would be a competitive advantage for UK businesses.
Also, it seems perverse that while young people languish in unemployment employers are struggling to fill job vacancies. The PBS sector will produce an additional 600,000 jobs by 2020 and already struggles with a skills shortage. Part of the explanation may be that 44 per cent of PBS employers that have recruited school leavers report that they are not sufficiently prepared for work. Employers were also found to be less satisfied with new recruits (graduates and school leavers) than for other sectors as a whole.
The Government's Professional and Business Services Council, of which I am co-Chairman, has given a lot of thought to these issues - and to possible solutions. We have identified a few modest proposals that could significantly improve the situation.
The first is Higher Apprenticeships (HAs). These already provide an alternative route into the PBS sector, which is the largest provider of HAs (supporting 3390 in 2011/12). Companies and firms from the accountancy, management consultancy and legal services sectors choose to offer HAs because they feel they improve the loyalty and retention of recruits. The Government, in its 'Growth is our Business' strategy, has challenged the sector to provide 10,000 HAs in five years' time. This tripling of HAs seems achievable but to tackle the skills shortage more will be required. Businesses and other potential providers will need to be made aware of the benefits; meanwhile, schools will need to endorse HAs as a viable career path with a prestige that has parity with university degrees.
This leads on to the second proposal: improving business engagement with schools, and raising awareness of potential career paths in PBS and the skills required to pursue them. Businesses and charities already do a huge amount with schools, but these efforts are undermined by not being done in a coordinated or effective manner. To improve the quality of engagement and spread best practice there needs to be a mechanism for organising and facilitating schemes. A single web-based portal that advertises potential schemes to schools, parents and pupils and links them with businesses willing to participate would be a huge improvement. To be a success this would require firm commitments from PBS firms as well as from schools and universities. This could take the form of a requirement for schools and universities to engage with businesses as part of their Ofsted or HEFCE inspection criteria.
The third final proposal is for a greater appreciation by businesses and the Government of the potential benefits of flexible working (and the need to remove the barriers to it). This is obviously a long term process but changes in the way we work, enabled by technological advances and societal change, will create new opportunities for potential recruits from diverse backgrounds who are not suited to regular and full 'normal' office hours. In addition to opening up the PBS sector to young people from low income and diverse backgrounds, flexible working could lead to better work/life balances for employees and will benefit employers by helping them to retain their best employees while keeping labour costs to a minimum.
Lack of opportunity for young people from low income and more diverse backgrounds is an entrenched problem and there are no easy or quick fixes. Tackling it will require cooperation between businesses and the Government and the proposals I have outlined if pursued diligently and managed competently would be a good start.