How Work Placements Can Help Boost Social Mobility

Despite a number of attempts to bolster social mobility around the world, the evidence suggests a limited amount of improvement has been achieved.

Sadly, for all the rhetoric around the “American dream,” the United States doesn’t really do any better than other nations around the world.

Recent research from New York University suggests that the American dream may be more of a mirage, and the occupational status of American workers reflects that of their parents far more than believed.

“A lot of Americans think the U.S. has more social mobility than other western industrialized countries,” the researchers explain. “This makes it abundantly clear that we have less.”

The data shows the the sons and daughters of high-status parents have many more advantages in the labor market than previous work believed. For instance, roughly 50% of children of workers in top tier occupations now work in occupations of a similar stature. Alternatively, half of the children of parents in bottom tier work also work in occupations of a similar stature.

Overcoming the barriers

The challenge is compounded by the impact the inequality that so often results from poor social mobility has on poorer people. A recent study from Boston College highlights how rising economic inequality makes social mobility even harder. The study reveals that rising economic inequality makes upward mobility feel practically impossible for disadvantaged youths, which in turn results in lower motivation and less productive behaviors.

So what can help? One study advocates education as an obvious first step, with the research revealing a direct connection between expenditure on public education and returns on that investment ranging from lower drop-out rates, higher taxes and general increases in upward mobility.

Education on its own is not enough however, and a recent study explored the impact work experience, and in particular year-long placements, can have on social mobility. The research found that such placements can be hugely influential, especially in securing entry into high-level professional services firms, where social mobility has been most resistant to change in recent years.

Level playing field

Data suggests that students from middle class backgrounds are more likely to take internships, both because they can tap into family social connections and also have greater financial resources to support themselves with during the internship. The researchers wanted to see whether including work placement as part of a degree program helped to level that playing field and give valuable access to students from poorer backgrounds.

Interestingly, the students in such programs were largely judged on their academic potential, with the work placements going to those with most potential rather than those from any particular socio-economic background. What’s more, the fact that such placements typically come with a wage attached goes a long way toward helping those from poorer backgrounds from being financially shut out from work experience that often revolves around unpaid internships.

The data is doubly significant because the students were gaining their work experience in the accountancy profession, which has notorious issues with social mobility. What’s more, the habit of unpaid internships in the sector merely exacerbates the problem, with interns too often children of either senior partners or key clients. This unfair foot in the door creates a wedge that is difficult for those from poorer backgrounds to clamber over.

The path to success

The students tracked in the research all attended the same university, allowing the researchers to try and draw conclusions that can be used to aid social mobility more widely. Suffice to say, the first step is to lower the barriers that prevent poorer people from attending elite universities in the first place. Equally, it’s vital that once they pass that first hurdle, that the students strive to achieve the best grades they can, as this remains a significant factor in securing the best jobs upon graduation.

Aside from this standard advice however, the authors believe their work reinforces the crucial role work placements can play, and that students should give significant time and attention to ensure that they select the right placement for them, and work on their interview skills to ensure they secure the placement.

Universities can play a role in this process by offering suitable support to help students polish their resume and fine tune their interview skills. It should be noted however that a “build it and they shall come” approach may not be sufficient, and efforts should be made to ensure all students can participate, even if they do not necessarily feel it’s for them.

It perhaps goes without saying that improving access to work placements isn’t going to fix social mobility on it’s own, but it’s perhaps indicative that innovative new education providers, such as Minerva, make placements a central part of their provision. Most of the time, these placements are positioned as a way to ease the transition into work, but as this study reminds us, they might also help us to make improvements in social mobility, which is something we can all get behind.

Read full article here: