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23rd January 2017

Social Mobility: how do we drive real change in our industry?

As we go about our professional work, we are wise to keep an eye on broader issues facing society. One such issue is that of ‘Social Mobility’, which is helpfully explored in the recent CIOB report, Social Mobility and Construction: Building routes to opportunity.

The case for focusing on social mobility is compelling. Conventional wisdom seems to be attributing the result of last June’s EU referendum at least partly to a broader economic malaise – the feeling that the UK’s economic progress is leaving a portion of the population behind. Some economic measures of social mobility seem to support this perception, and the CIOB report concludes, “There is a growing consensus among leading academics and politicians that social mobility in the UK is in reverse”.

That’s cause for concern, and it’s clearly on the Prime Minister’s mind as well. Since taking office, she has talked on numerous occasions about ensuring that capitalism works for the many, not just the few. Setting the tone in her very first speech as Prime Minister, she said that “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you”. That’s not a politically divisive statement; it’s something all can agree with, so we in the built environment sector need to take it to heart and examine whether we are doing our part. 

After all, it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s in our best interest.

As the CIOB report puts it, “Low social mobility robs the nation of potential talent”, and in a sector struggling with a skills shortage, any type of exclusion is not just plain wrong but plain stupid.

Brexit threatens to restrict the supply of skilled builders we have accessed in recent years, and we need to be replacing this in the long term with home-grown talent, drawing from the widest possible pool of individuals, regardless of socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds.

Despite our sector’s poor performance in attracting women and people from ethnic minorities, we actually have a strong foundation on which to build when it comes to social mobility. 

Many leaders in the industry started out as tradesmen and rose through the ranks. The value we place on the artisan skills and our willingness to give masters of such skills an opportunity to take on supervisory and managerial responsibilities is evident. 

More so than many sectors, construction has a culture that values experience and ability, not just background and connections. The CIOB report concludes that “among the UK industries, construction ranks near the top for social mobility.” 

However, this is merely a good start. I believe we need to do more.

For example, the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy can be seen as an opportunity. Apprenticeships are a key enabler to social mobility – giving young people especially the opportunity to acquire qualifications, even academic degrees, without incurring debt.

We need a conscious effort from companies to use apprenticeships to promote social mobility, coupled with a cultural shift towards more inclusivity.

How do we make this happen? The CIOB report offers a number of useful recommendations for fostering social mobility, including (just to name a few):

  • Construction businesses should introduce and/or expand mentoring schemes to specifically support those from less-advantaged backgrounds

  • The industry as a whole can rally around social mobility as a collective theme, and support schemes that widen access to management and the professions

  • The professional institutions can spread understanding of the built environment’s impact on social mobility and provide greater routes for degree-level learning among those working within construction

  • The government can take a longer-term view of construction as a strategic industry and a motor for social mobility – seeking, through strategic investment, to reduce the volatility, and making construction a core part of the Industrial Strategy


So all can play a role in promoting social mobility, and the CIOB’s report reflects strong leadership.

Read the CIOB report: Social Mobility and Construction: Building routes to opportunity

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