Challenging stereotypes the key to more diversity in graduate recruitment

Transform Society boosts diverse talent interest in public sector careers

Inspiring talented graduates from diverse backgrounds into public sector services so that they better represent the communities they serve is the aim of the Transform Society. Founder and CEO James Darley discusses the need to challenge stereotypes in graduate recruitment.

Every year 400,000 people graduate from universities, only 20,000 of whom will be recruited by the top 100 companies or, as James Darley puts it, “the majority are not going to get that Willy Wonka job.”

In his 24years of working in graduate recruitment, Darley has seen it turn into graduate rejection – 98% of applications get turned down – a situation which he admits is “thoroughly depressing.”

Also, many of the top recruiters favour Russell Group universities which tend not to be ethnically diverse. “A lot of graduate recruitment is quite traditional,” he explains. “Also students are starting to use their own networks and social capital. These are areas that aren’t traditionally used as much by certain communities.”

 As Founder and CEO of the Transform Society, Darley is on a mission to inspire a generation of diverse talent into public sector careers. Transform Society is an alliance of five social change programmes representing over 55% of public sector hires in the Time Top 100 Graduate Employers. They aim to recruit child social workers, police officers, prison officers, teachers and mental health adult social workers. The programme for teachers called Teach First was the first and the model for the others.

During his 15 years at Teach First, he was instrumental in boosting the teaching profession, recruiting 10,000 high-calibre graduates into the classroom. Teach First reached second place in the Times Top 100 graduate employers, and the other programmes are also ranking highly.

Transform Society Challenge

Darley has served as a trustee for each of the graduate programmes, except Teach First, and works strategically with eight universities – who also fund him – to improve their “access, success and progression goals to help students and make it fairer”.

Some of the initiatives that have proved successful include highlighting the importance of public sector careers and building transferable skills with the Office for Students and the Transform Society Challenge. Students work with academics and the community on tackling a local problem.

The idea for the challenge was born out of the realisation that many universities fail to reach out to their local communities. It was piloted in York and Leicester and will be expanded to other universities.

The chosen subject in Leicester and York was knife crime which was a significant problem in both cities. “We got the academics to come and talk – Leicester did it in a day, York in a week – theoretically about the topic,” Darley explains.

“They spoke from sociological and criminology points of views, using their academic knowledge. We got local community leaders to come and give their perspective on knife crime. Then I spoke about the skills they were developing that were relevant to my five members [of Transform Society]. There was a golden thread running through it of employability and building their skills.”

Darley then arranged for the students to present their findings and ideas to the head of strategy at the Home Office. He adds: “Now that you can’t physically do work experience and internships, there’s even more interest because it means that students are doing something slightly different outside their curriculum but within their curriculum, as it were. They get to work with others, hear other people’s perspectives and build their skills when it is hard to do in this virtual world.”

Employers need more diversity of intake

The coronavirus pandemic did lead to a 12% reduction in graduate vacancies in 2020, but the Public Sector stayed strong and now has more vacancies collectively than any other sector.  For 2021 the top 100 employers are predicting 2.5% growth in 2020. Darley puts this down to a belief in the value of graduates, who bring in fresh talent with new ideas and thinking.

“I would argue though that all employers are not doing enough to ensure diversity of thinking and diversity of intake,” he says. “Most large recruiters still go to a small number of campuses, and post-pandemic that number might be reduced further as virtual attraction continues, due to ease of delivery, reduction of cost and availability of senior colleagues, but I worry not enough is being done to attract diversity in the right way.

“Feedback from BAME students suggests there are certain career sectors that are attractive, such as finance, medicine and legal, while other sectors struggle to challenge those stereotypes – policing is a great example.

“Do we need more diverse ethnic talent coming into the police force? Absolutely, because, when it was set up, it was supposed to represent the communities. At the moment, it doesn’t to the level that it needs to.”

Darley suggests more collaboration with students from different backgrounds to understand the barriers that they face. There may also be a need to work with parents who may influence their children’s career choices. One of the issues for universities was collecting data and then doing something about it, for example, when awarding gaps are observed delivering interventions that actually resolve the inequity (e.g. if you see Black male students are twice as likely to get a 2:2 than a 2:1 then do something about it!).

Portfolio careers

He says that big businesses could learn from what the Transform Society programmes do by clarifying their diversity and inclusion aims and making them public.

“Then I think it’s important that they do their research,” states Darley. “In the corporate world, it is very easy to pay a lot of money to an agency. It looks like they’re doing a good job, and then they stop. Or they buy into an award or association. So, they throw money at it, but it doesn’t actually fix it. I don’t think you can get away with not having good conversations and trying to find solutions on the ground.”

Another major issue is that the average graduate only stays in their first job for 2.7 years. That’s because 70-80% of them are entering a portfolio career world. As a result, there is less commitment from employers who are less willing to offer development and promotion to people who are likely to leave.

As Darley points out: “There needs to be better communication and better expectation management between the corporate employer and the graduate. There isn’t enough careers education in schools to help young people understand that the portfolio career world is normal and to have their eyes opened to careers.”

Looking to the year ahead, he thinks the top 100 firms will still take on graduates, but it will be more difficult in the SME sector, which has suffered the loss of business during the lockdowns.

His advice to graduates in the current climate is, “if you have a goal, in the short term, think about work and experiences that you can have that are going to build your skills and your network to help you get there. Think of it more as a stepping stone – that could be the public sector, which is a lot more secure and has more positions. It could be key workers; it could be community work. Don’t waste this time. Please look at how you can develop yourself.”
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