I’M proud to say that I grew up in Rotherham. It’s the town that built me, and it’s a town that has always had industry at its heart. That very industry, steel making, was crucial to my family’s livelihood too – both my father and grandfather worked in the steel industry, and I grew up with it all around me.
My grandparents lived on the other side of Rotherham, in Greasbrough and the journey to see them used to take us past the then Aldwarke Lane British Steel site. The plant is set back from the road, with huge buildings and office blocks in front and I was always fascinated by what went on inside. I often asked my dad about the steel industry and probably knew more than about making alloy steel than a 10-year-old ever should!
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in how businesses and industry worked, how they created jobs or didn’t, why some made a profit, why others didn’t, the ideas for new products. From my own family’s experience of my father being unemployed, I already knew that when businesses weren’t creating jobs, that directly affected my family.
But when I look back now, I realise how limited my horizons were. Business to me was really just about the industry I saw around Rotherham. Like most of my friends, I never really 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. Even so, we might well have been interested in those opportunities and those very different careers. We just didn’t know about them.
That’s why I launched my Social Mobility Pledge last month, to help today’s children and young people to have the chance to know about the opportunities that are out there and the chance to see for themselves some of the businesses they might want to work in.
The Social Mobility Pledge asks businesses to commit to three things. Firstly, a partnership with local schools. There are loads of great organisations already helping companies to do this: Speakers for Schools, Inspiring the Future, the Prince’s Trust to name just a few. They want more businesses to work with, especially in places like Yorkshire.
Secondly, I’m asking businesses to commit to offering work placements or apprenticeships. Young people know work experience counts, but not enough companies offer it.
Thirdly, the pledge asks businesses to have open recruitment practices such as ‘name-blind’ recruitment, or so-called contextual recruitment that assesses you against your peers from similar schools and backgrounds. Research shows this simple step increases the chance of disadvantaged young people getting successfully recruited by 50 per cent.
Together these three steps can make a big difference in creating more opportunities for young people. The Social Mobility Pledge is supported by the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, and the Federation of Small Business and we’ve already had some big players sign up.
Talent is spread evenly, it’s opportunity that’s not. If businesses in Yorkshire get behind the Social Mobility Pledge, they can play a big role in helping the region’s undoubtedly talented young people get the opportunities they need to prosper and succeed. And maybe this new generation will be inspired to set up their own businesses in Yorkshire, guaranteeing the region’s success and creating the future jobs in the local communities they’re proud to be part of too.
I don’t accept that young people growing up in different parts of our country have such different outcomes that are totally unrelated to their talent. It’s bad for them, and for all of us as a country. Fixing it is hard and it extends well beyond targeted government investment in the Northern Powerhouse, crucial though that is.
Signing up to the Social Mobility Pledge is good for businesses as well. Why end up with your company fishing in a talent “puddle” for people when you can be actively developing a bigger talent pool for the future by partnering with schools? And why not then have recruitment practices that more carefully assess underlying potential and look ahead?
I know there’s often a tendency to wait for someone else to fix things, but, on social mobility, part of the “fix” lies in businesses’ hands. If we want things to be different they can be. If you run a company, you can take a decision to change things too and commit to the Social Mobility Pledge. If you work in a company, ask your boss to do it. It’s action not words that will level the playing field for young people.
In this first column, I haven’t mentioned the word “Brexit” once. That’s because whatever the Brexit deal our Prime Minister gets, improved equality of opportunity, young people knowing they can reach their potential, is at the core of what needs to change in Britain. It will lift all our prospects, and I believe that those who can make a change now have a responsibility to do so. Yorkshire businesses – it’s over to you!
Justine Greening is the former Education Secretary. Born in Rotherham, she will be writing a monthly column for The Yorkshire Post.