Martin Edmondson: How social mobility isn’t so mobile any more

THE future looks even more challenging for today’s young graduates. The Budget had a few glimmers of hope for education with its focus on the 14-19 age bracket.

However, there remains a significant challenge around graduate employment and under-employment that is not addressed by the budget.

Graduate internships schemes, local and national, are drawing to a close over the next few months, with no further government support offered at this stage.

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These schemes are crucial in driving underemployed graduates into quality, paid internships. By driving graduates to employment through internships, it frees up the job market for non-graduates, creating a healthier job market.

Education has always been the answer to social mobility. If you wanted to better yourself, you got a degree. At one point in British history, only the wealthy had access to opportunity. Money begot money. The rich got richer as the poor got poorer thanks to a cruelly rigid class structure. Of course, today, that’s all in the past. We live in a democracy, where social mobility means you can better your life, and the lives of your family. Or at least that’s what we’ve been brought up to believe. And yet, here are the facts: the highest youth unemployment figures since records began in 1992; in 2011, graduates can expect to start working life with almost £25,000 of student debt; the average age of the first-time homebuyer is 38.

Three big facts. The first suggests, even with a good education, the job market is challenging. The second states, before you even earn your first month’s salary, you’ll be carrying around a debilitating debt. The third? Even if you do get a good job, work hard and save money, you’ll have to wait until you’re almost middle-aged before you can afford your own home. It is a situation that risks disenfranchising a generation.

Unless you have access to the famous “bank of mum and dad”, you will certainly be up against it. It’s not surprising then, that social mobility isn’t so mobile. The number of young people classed as NEET (not in employment, education or training) had risen by 18.1 per cent at the end of 2010.

Add to that “graduate underemployment” (graduates whose education leads to a McJob rather than a fitting career) and the increasing number of skilled, mature workers facing redundancy being unleashed on to a competitive jobs market, and we should be fighting harder than ever to help graduates begin their lives with at least the prospect of a career. Underemployment and unemployment fuel depression, anxiety, insecurity. It’s bleak. Internships may not have had a glowing press recently, but let’s not get too pulled into the London-centric stories. Footballers, fashion and the media expect bright young things to work for free and make tea as part of their work experience.

Even interns who aren’t treated poorly are now expected in those lofty careers to pay for the experience. The most shocking revelation is the fact that some internships have been auctioned off to the highest bidder – such as a two-week opportunity for a potential young trader at CMC Markets which fetched £3,000, or a two-week internship at Tatler, which cost £4,000. However, internships have always offered a way for graduates to get their foot in the door.

That’s why, at Graduates Yorkshire, we’re determined to make it a more equitable playing field for graduates, regardless of their parents’ income. We are working with key organisations and local government to try and tackle these big issues around under-employment, seeking a kite mark on internships so graduates can expect a decent experience that offers real benefits for graduates and employers. It’s the lack of social mobility that kicks where it really hurts. Social mobility should be one of the defining characteristics of a fair democratic society. Only seven per cent of us attend private schools, and yet 65 per cent of the legal profession is dominated by this class. Of course there are job sectors where traditionally, graduates work for free because of the overwhelming demand – the media, the fashion industry, politics. It’s London-centric.

But there are positive stories, good news stories that you don’t hear much about. Graduates Yorkshire has been committed to running paid internship schemes that benefit the graduate and small businesses alike. Over the past year, we’ve helped over 300 underemployed graduates. By getting these graduates into internships, this paves the way for other unemployed young people in the marketplace to take roles currently held by graduates.

Good internships can improve and widen access to the professions within strategic and growth industries of the future, like the digital realm or engineering construction. It’s not just about helping graduates have fulfilling careers, it’s about investing in Yorkshire’s economic future; what’s more, it’s about keeping the ideals of social mobility alive.

Our children, and their children, deserve meritocracy – not mediocrity – when it comes to their education, hopes and future.

Martin Edmondson is chief executive of Graduates Yorkshire.