As a youngster, Justine Greening was fascinated by the Aldwarke Lane British Steel site in her hometown of Rotherham.
She would pass it on the way to her grandparents’ house and was intrigued by what went on inside.
It was her first insight into how business and industry worked but she admits that growing up her horizons were limited to what went on in Rotherham. She never had the chance to meet anyone in the professions, lawyers or accountants.
“We had no idea what the banking industry or the City was all about. It seemed like a foreign world, and anyhow I was interested in making things, because that was what we did in Rotherham and I was proud of that,” she says.
“Even so, we might well have been interested in those opportunities and those very different careers. We just didn’t know about them.” Ms Greening believes “most people in Britain” are held back by their backgrounds and their lack of connections can hinder them when applying for jobs.
The former Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities progressed to frontline politics from a working-class upbringing in which she experienced unemployment in her own family, attended a comprehensive school and became the first member of her family to go to university.
The desire to open up career opportunities to young people who might not otherwise be exposed to certain industries led her to launch the Social Mobility Pledge in 2018.
The aim of the pledge is to encourage businesses to play their crucial role in boosting social mobility in the UK, and highlight which organisations and employers are going the extra mile.
As the initiative approaches its second year, almost 400 companies, representing almost three million employees, have signed up to the pledge, including big names like M&S, John Lewis, and the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms: Deloitte, KPMG, PwC and EY.
In Yorkshire, businesses and organisations representing 200,000 employees are part of the scheme, including Asda, Drax, Yorkshire Water, Morrisons and Persimmon. Several universities have also signed up, including York St John, which works with students on running a variety of events aimed at widening access to university.
“The progress we’ve made has been right at the top of what I hoped for because there has been so much goodwill and interest from businesses, including those in the Yorkshire region,” Ms Greening told Yorkshire Vision.
By signing the pledge, businesses promise to work in partnership with schools and colleges to provide coaching to people from disadvantaged backgrounds through quality careers advice, mentoring and providing work experience and apprenticeship opportunities.
One of the challenges for companies is working out how to broaden their talent pool to recruit candidates from different backgrounds.
Yorkshire Water’s head of organisational development, Gillian Mason, says it recently widened its recruitment strategy.
“Rather than just using LinkedIn and job sites, we’ve also started advertising on local radio, and in other languages as well, she says.
A challenge for the Social Mobility Pledge is how to help companies learn from one another.
“The reality is that businesses who are becoming part of the network are doing it because they want to make a difference. When we launched the pledge we were flooded with companies wanting to be involved but they were wanting to do even more than we were suggesting,” says Ms Greening.
The organisation is currently in the process of compiling a number of insight reports, which document the progress of companies who go the extra mile.
“We are in the foothills of what we can do in this area,” Ms Greening adds.
One of the most creative businesses supporting the Social Mobility Pledge, she says, is the Sewell Group. It sees social mobility as part of its business strategy rather than corporate social responsibility. The Hull-based business pledged to continue to adopt open employee recruitment practices, which promote a level playing field for people facing challenging circumstances.
As part of Humber Business Week 2019, it organised an event called ‘The Kid Done Good’, which focused on inspirational stories of how people turned humble beginnings and tough hurdles into success and positivity.
Ms Greening said: “I have really been struck by the fact that Yorkshire has responded so positively to the Social Mobility Pledge.
“Across the region there are some brilliant examples of how businesses can be a force for good.
Ms Greening, who is standing down as a Conservative MP at the next election, is keen to forge even stronger links between businesses and schools, colleges and universities going forward.
“There are one million students in the universities that have signed up to this pledge. We want to connect them up with employers,” she says.
“Employers need to look beyond the grades to see what potential is there. Most people have things that have gone wrong. It’s not necessarily something you put on your CV but we think it should be. It’s about showing your work ethic and resilience.”
The campaign also wants to help companies on a larger scale with recruitment and their ability to retain talent once it’s there so that people feel like they fit into an organisation.
However, despite all the good intentions, there’s no denying that Britain has never been a very socially mobile country, so can initiatives like the Social Mobility Pledge really address the inequalities that are hardwired into our society?
In April, the government’s social mobility watchdog – the Social Mobility Commission – warned that class privilege remains deeply entrenched in Britain and the ability to achieve better pay and social position has stagnated since 2014.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in June that the party would ditch a target of social mobility, pledging to instead appoint a minister for social justice to tackle inequality.
Ms Greening believes the Social Mobility Pledge will succeed if people want it to. “Britain has never been a country that has had equality of opportunity but it doesn’t have to stay that way,” she says. “For change to happen it needs grassroots change.”
“Ministers don’t have to pass a law for companies to say they are going to offer more work experience and apprenticeships to people who would have no other chance of getting in there.”
She adds: “If every company in Britain joined the social mobility pledge, we would already have a different version of the story in this country
and give everyone the same opportunities. We want to build on the success we have had so far and grow our network with more companies going forward.”
Most adults in the UK wish they had tried harder at school to achieve a better career, while 31 per cent believe they selected the wrong university course, according to a study by the Social Mobility Pledge last month.
A majority (58 per cent) of UK adults say they wish they had tried harder at school, while 48 per cent would change the subjects they took at school.
The research involving 2,000 UK adults is part of an ongoing study into the causes of Britain’s widespread lack of social mobility, or equality of opportunity.
Justine Greening said: “These results show classroom regrets are holding workers back and that’s why it is so vital for employers to get into schools and talk about careers. We can see that because students often don’t know where they are aiming, they can lack motivation and unsurprisingly so many feel they have made the wrong choices.
“That’s why I set up the Social Mobility Pledge so that the next generation of children know what they’re aiming for and they can succeed in later life.
“The challenge for Britain now is to create an employment sector in which people have the confidence to pursue fulfilling careers without hitting unfair barriers, such as those perpetuated through the UK’s lack of social mobility.
“As we have seen through the success of the Social Mobility Pledge, many employers are willing to support fairer recruitment practices and reward people for talent and effort, not background or connections.”