Action Needed to Make Graduate Employment Fair to All

Sandra Kerr  OBE - National Director Race for Opportunity

Blog by Sandra Kerr OBE, director of Race for Opportunity

Employers need to take action to make graduate recruitment fair for all

In January, a UN report on the global unemployment crisis cited concerns on the long-term employability of young people as their skills deteriorate through long-term unemployment. We know that the current economic climate means job searching is increasingly competitive, particularly when it comes to graduate recruitment. Last year, six out of ten graduates left University without a job to go to.  When it comes to graduate recruitment, the UK’s top employers are increasingly looking at non-academic criterion. The recent High Fliers Research shows these employers predominately seek out graduate candidates from Russell Group universities, with work experience, preferably work experience or an internship with their organisation (graduate jobs given to the latter has doubled to 36% from 2012). 
These increasingly non-academic requisites highlight serious concerns over whether graduate recruitment is fair and equal to all.

It’s clear there are well-worn paths into certain sectors and careers that are very much influenced by access to certain type of education, and a “who you know” network that opens doors.  The Sutton Trust found that 82% of barristers, 81% of judges and 53% of partners in the ‘magic circle’ law firms had attended Oxford or Cambridge, and two thirds of barristers and three quarters of judges had attended fee-paying schools. In the 2010 Parliament, they reported that 69% of Cabinet Ministers were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge universities and that 62% went to independent (fee-paying) schools. In media, a 2006 report found that 54% of the UK’s top journalists were educated privately.

This means that aspiring young people lacking the parentage to provide a certain education and a connected network are at a disadvantaging even before they start out on their own much less well-worn path.  This all perpetuates inequalities in our society. 

As much as many work experience placements are paid (and even then there is no guarantee that the reimbursement covers basic cost of commuting and living), many are not.  Those students that lack the funds to supplement an unpaid placement immediately fall behind their peers regardless of talent and academic achievements.

Securing a useful and relevant work experience placement that will impress future employers is challenging. If the undergraduate course doesn’t offer work placements, then the onus is on the individual to secure one and this is often dependent on their family and friends having the professional connections to deliver on this.

Of course, all of this comes after the student has run the gauntlet of choosing their career and mapping this ambition against the “right” course and university.

Last year, it was revealed that one in three schools has no plan to deliver careers advice. Where else can students that lack alternative advisory networks turn to for advice, support and professional connections? Without this guidance, many talented young people are unknowingly at a disadvantage before they’ve even chosen a course and university or graduated.

It is not enough to assume that all employers offer paid work experience and internships. It is not enough to assume that all employers are mindful of diversity when it comes to filling these placements. 

I encourage employers to do five things:

  1. Forge links with local schools or schools in deprived communities and non-Russell Group universities. Proactively share insight into career paths available and make connections with subjects the students study 
  2. Mentoring. Whether it’s general advice on the breadth of careers available and knowing what to study to achieve this, giving an understanding of the importance employers place on university and work experience, or making profession connections, mentors have the opportunity to give many young people an equal footing in the competitive world of graduate recruitment. Mentoring also offers development opportunities for employees, who gain awareness and understanding of people with backgrounds and experiences potentially very different to their own.
  3. Offer paid work placements and internships that provide valuable experience for the individual. This enables you to attract and engage with a group of talented students who may simply lack the advantages of a strong socio economic background.
  4. Ensure diverse slates for paid work experience/ internships and graduate recruitment. Be in step with the full diversity of talent available in the UK and the innovation and creativity inherent in that.
  5. Extend this understanding of diversity into career progression. Race for Opportunity’s Race to Progress research found that there was a strong understanding amongst BAME workers that networking is important for career progression, yet very few felt confident about networking and only did it rarely. This should set alarm bells ringing among employers; if these motivated employees are aware of the importance of the ‘who you know’ network but feel unconfident to develop them, it is clear there is need for greater training and guidance for BAME workers to ensure equality of opportunity and career progression.


In the UK today, 1 in 4 primary school children is from a BAME background, and by 2051 1 in 5 people in the UK will be from an ethnic background. The nation’s workforce must reflect this diversity across all sectors and at every level, yet due to conventional approaches to recruitment, many organisations are restricting the employment opportunities of huge swathes of the UK’s population, whilst cutting themselves off from untapped sources of talent.