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How social mobility can be key to overcoming talent deficit

By Amal Ratnayake, FCMA, CGMA, President, CIMA Chair, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

A global labour shortage of 85.2 million skilled workers is projected by 2030, resulting in lost turnover of £6.5 trillion. In the UK alone, the talent deficit is expected to reach 2.2 million. The finance sector will be hardest hit, accounting for 22.8% of the shortage, as presented in a 2018 study by Korn Ferry

Social mobility refers to an individual’s ability to move between social and economic hierarchies. Some countries offer this opportunity more readily than others, which is demonstrated by the social mobility index from the World Economic Forum. 

Professional jobs are most often attained by the children of professionals. As employers struggle to close this gap, the social mobility problem may become the solution.

Broaden diversity
In the 1980s, employers in many countries began to actively recruit women and minorities into professional roles. The professional workforce grew, but these diversity initiatives didn’t consider socio-economic background. A wider net was cast, but into the same pool. 

As unprecedented numbers of professional workers retire over the next few years, traditional sources for new hires are insufficient. At the same time, whilst automation technology is shrinking jobs for less skilled workers, the need for highly skilled professionals is growing. The solution is simple: hire professionals from working-class families.

Expand the candidate pool
Research consistently finds the largest employers disproportionately hire graduates from a small number of elite universities. Data also shows that elite universities graduate large numbers of students from affluent families. 

In the UK, the Social Mobility Foundation found that whilst 45% of applications to employers in its Social Mobility Employer Index come from the 24 Russell Group universities, 62% of hires do; at law firms, 84% of hires do. These figures are largely unchanged in three years despite employers making fewer visits to Russell Group universities overall. 

In the United States, research from the Harvard Business Review suggests case-based interviews that are preferred by top consultancies and many of the Fortune 500 should actually be replaced by more objective assessments, such as General Mental Ability (GMA) exams. 

Prudent employers hire from a large number of universities.

Hire based on potential, not polish
Candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds may have lacked access to the highest quality education that top employers are accustomed to seeing. PwC, ranked as the top UK employer in the Social Mobility Employer Index 2019, removed UCAS points from the majority of the firm’s graduate and undergraduate opportunities. 

As an alternative, GMA assessments that test candidates’ ability to solve problems in a variety of topics were used by PwC. In addition to empirical evidence that GMAs are the best predictor of fluid intelligence, they also can help reduce unconscious bias by blinding the name, sex, race and background of the candidates.

Track and report progress
Like any behaviour you want to promote in your organisation, tracking and reporting your progress on social mobility is essential. Participating in voluntary reporting programs, such as the Social Mobility Employer Index in the UK, is one way to focus your organisation on the issue. Since its launch in 2017, the index has grown to 172 employers across 18 sectors. According to, Social Mobility Foundation, the aim of the index is to encourage firms to share their initiatives and progress in becoming more inclusive employers and to reveal which sectors and companies are taking the issue of social mobility most seriously.

Extend onboarding
Hiring is one thing. Retention and success are another. New-hires from elite universities and affluent families typically begin a new job with extensive support networks. New-hires from more challenging backgrounds may not have that support. These differences should be considered when onboarding. Consider extending your new hire program for 12 months or longer to ensure socially disadvantaged employees have the support they need to be successful.

Enjoy added benefits
The advantages of hiring workers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds go beyond promoting your numbers for diversity and inclusion. Numerous studies have found diversity improves organisational health and performance. 

Since my early days as a management accountant, I have believed that CIMA qualifications are a ticket to success. This notion has only become more and more true as I’ve grown in my career. As CIMA President, nothing makes me happier than seeing others seize everything the profession has to offer. However, we have to build pathways to the profession that makes this possible.

And that’s exactly what CIMA and the Association are doing — reimagining how we can create a profession that truly drives trust, opportunity and prosperity for everyone.