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Accountancy Must do More to Promote Social Mobility

Improving social mobility has long been a goal of successive governments in London and Cardiff Bay, and is a key issue in developing the professional accountants that we will need in the future.

Although this is a topic I’ve written about previously, it is well worth returning to given the acute need to develop talent and skills and recent issues at the Social Mobility Commission .

Put simply, a focus on social mobility is about widening the talent pool. Companies will only be able to attract and retain the best talent if they are open to all with the desire and ability, regardless of social background.

Increasingly the business community has come to understand that it has a vital role to play as well. Research from the likes of PwC and McKinsey has also illustrated the strong business case for taking the issue seriously: linking diverse workforces with increases in productivity and performance.

Within financial and professional services there is a strong understanding that there is room for improvement. The Sutton Trust has found that less than 1 in 10 leading figures in UK financial services attended state schools; the Social Mobility Commission has lamented the slow rate of change of those from non-professional backgrounds into senior roles.

That is why Purpose and the Profession, ACCA’s new report into social mobility within accountancy makes for especially timely reading. In a year where ACCA’s membership passed the 200,000 mark worldwide, it is particularly important to consider how Wales and the rest of the UK compares to the global picture.

Taking in the views of over 13,000 ACCA members and students, the report offers an optimistic overview of social mobility. We should remember that, despite gloomy headlines, that the opening up of the world economy in recent decades has seen vast improvements in living standards and advancement for many.

In the UK it was striking to see that 64% of those surveyed came from households where a parent or guardian did not go to university and 59% from a non-professional or managerial background.

Perhaps even more heartening was the news that 94% of respondents viewed social mobility as an important value. Combined with similar studies highlighting how highly millennials consider on an organisation’s track record on diversity and inclusion before applying for or accepting a role, this is a welcome sign.

Yet not all of the report makes comfortable reading for the profession. In the UK, only 9% of respondents said they were influenced to pursue an accountancy career by a teacher or guardian. While this is testament to the drive and ambition of many, it opens up the question of whether the profession is doing enough to encourage all backgrounds.

For many, there remains a perception that the profession is too pale, male and stale. That is no longer the case – ACCA has a near equal gender split in the UK and globally – but more can be done to make that reassurance. For too many young people, an instinctive view that accountancy or finance ‘is not for me’ can deter them from realising what an accountancy career can offer them. I’ve recently attended careers fairs at schools in Merthyr, Ferndale and Pontypridd with ACCA members, highlighting the wide range of sectors in which accountants can work, and the flexible routes to becoming an ACCA qualified accountant, including the Apprenticeship route. The feedback received from the pupils has been very encouraging.

However, much more also needs to be done than just raising awareness. The Social Mobility Commission has noted the importance of regional differences, for instance. There are significant differences in social mobility outcomes within Wales: between the likes of Cardiff and Pembrokeshire or Monmouthshire and Gwynedd.

Finding ways to create a level playing field in terms of opportunity, regardless of background, is a complex and multi-tiered challenge. The profession must find ways of playing its part, and recognising where it can make a significant contribution.

This includes ensuring courses offer flexible entry learning routes so that geography or balancing paid work commitments do not provide a barrier to pursuing an education. It also means working with employers to ensure work experience or internships do not discriminate against those with limited means, and removing bias from the recruitment process to avoid simply ‘hiring in the hirer’s image.’ I encourage all employers to consider taking on work placement students. I’ll be putting this into practice in the next few weeks as we in the ACCA Cymru Wales office welcome a work placement student from the University of South Wales.

It is also important that professional bodies recognise the unique role they have to facilitate a joined up approach between business, education and social policy. Encouraging better data collection and interpretation on social mobility will enable a more targeted approach to where intervention could make a difference, and where existing initiatives are failing.

Yet the accountancy profession should also think about how its own insights and skills can be applied to the process. Some of these solutions require creativity and vision. As the profession evolves into new areas – environmental accounting or computational thinking – it will open up opportunities to those with different skills and interests who had not previously considered it as a career.

There are also new opportunities afforded by technology. The ‘closed shop’ of professional skills is increasingly becoming the open-source network. Social networks such as Slack or Coworker offer fresh ways for professionals to build valuable connections and knowledge-sharing. The profession must think about ways it can develop digital skills and guidance to empower individuals to make use of this.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ to improving social mobility. Yet we should also not use this as an excuse. Professional accountants are used to looking beyond the surface and seeing the opportunities underneath. We all have a role to play to keep on making sure those opportunities are available to all with talent to succeed, regardless of background.

Lloyd Powell is Head of ACCA Cymru Wales