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2017_03_15 Ahead Partnership Whitcliffe_0716

Social Mobility in the UK: over-looking soft skills could be as big a threat to employability as job-pinching robots, automation and AI

by Anna Turner, our Creative Programmes Coordinator

The Sutton Trust’s new report, The State of Social Mobility in the UK, has been causing a bit of a stir. Articles like this one have drawn attention to the report’s prophetic warnings about technological disruption, the advancement of robotics and Artificial Intelligence, and the potential impact of all these new factors on jobs and employment in the near future.

Job-stealing robots and disruptive AI certainly make for spectacular headlines, and it’s undoubtedly important to think about how the inventions of tomorrow will impact the lives of young people who are plotting out their career paths and ambitions today. However, the importance of facing up to this dystopian image of the future isn’t reason enough to ignore this report’s home truths about the state of social mobility in the UK at present.


The Sutton Trust’s 2017 report states that “access to education and job opportunities is an ongoing issue with continued evidence of opportunity 'hoarding' through networks, information asymmetries, and social bias. Even when less well-off students attend the same university and study the same subject as their wealthier peers they earn over 10% less per year.” This isn’t an uncomfortable snapshot of what could be in store years from now, it’s something that’s happening right now.

Young people from less advantaged backgrounds are losing out on some of the benefits and opportunities that may be readily extended to their wealthier peers. In particular, the report draws attention to the acquisition and importance of “soft skills” or “essential life skills” as a marker of social inequality and an impediment to progress in this area.

Building on earlier research, the report notes how “researchers at the LSE find that [soft] skills not only directly impact job outcomes, but significantly impact educational attainment”, concluding that “while focus on this area in schools is improving, gaps in "essential skills" remain unaddressed and a barrier to social mobility.”

Suggestions and recommendations are made, which go some way towards offering solutions to these issues. For one, we should be “supporting innovation and entrepreneurship” as crucial drivers of growth. Innovation and entrepreneurship are both principles that should be represented in the experiences of all young people.

These values can be woven into the culture of schools and the institutions that young people spend time in. This could mean ensuring that young people have contact with professionals and entrepreneurs, as well as ensuring that they’re acquainted with the world of work from a young age. In the case of innovation specifically, young people should have the opportunity to learn through doing and should be encouraged to experiment, investigate and create. When implemented well, live briefs and functional workshops like those we offer through Make the Grade can be invaluable tools for developing these skills and fostering an interest in innovation with young people.

Essential life skills and soft skills are at the heart of all this, they should be present in the education and development of all young people. The Sutton Trust’s report suggests that “schools must do more to develop "soft" or "essential life skills" in less advantaged pupils, through a richer programme of extra-curricular activities.” By making time for extra-curricular activities, schools are also making time for the chance to address issues like “opportunity 'hoarding'” and “information asymmetries”, which have the potential to negatively impact on young peoples’ ability to achieve.

Though the media might choose to focus on robot workers, whose imminent arrival may yet come to devastate the job market, the Sutton Trust’s report on social mobility in the UK shines a light on some much simpler, more prescient truths: while STEM subjects are an important tool in preparing young people for the changing world of work, more needs to be done to help cultivate crucial soft skills from an early age.

Schools should be making room for interventions on entrepreneurship, innovation, life skills and careers education. Meanwhile, businesses can collaborate with third sector organisations like ours to help ensure these interventions are of high quality. In this way, we can continue to offer opportunities for development to young people from all social backgrounds.


Is your school, college or business struggling to find a way to really engage young people in the world of work and key soft skills for the future? Take a look at our Make the Grade case studies to find out how we're helping turn the tide on careers and enterprise education.  

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