What the graduate recruitment industry needs to learn from the BBC’s 'How to Break into the Elite'

What the graduate recruitment industry needs to learn from the BBC’s 'How to Break into the Elite'


For those of us working within the graduate recruitment industry, Amol Rajan’s BBC documentary How to Break into the Elite is an engaging but difficult watch, partly because it tells us something we do not like to admit that we know, but also because it only tells half the story.

Zac Williams, Co-Founder & Director at GradTouch, shares his views on the programme with Ri5:

Aired last week on BBC Two, the documentary diverted me from my usual Monday evening routine of recharging through the means of a mindless Netflix binge and instead had me thoroughly tuned in and thinking in overdrive.

If you have not watched it yet, How to Break into the Elite follows the journeys of several graduates from less advantaged backgrounds than some of their university peers as they set out to climb the career ladder all the way to the top professions they have been dreaming of.

In doing so, it shatters the dated, but still widely accepted, social construction that education is the great equaliser. That no matter who you are or where you are from, getting a degree is the key to entering into a highly skilled and successful career.

Because, as the graduates in the documentary found, it is really not that simple.

A degree alone is not enough to have employers flocking to offer you a place on their prestigious graduate schemes.

It is sometimes not even enough to have the right skills and experiences. All too often your chances of breaking into a top occupation ride on whether or not you are the same “type” of person a company is used to employing.

For working class graduates like the documentary’s Amaan, his undeniable intelligence and 1st class degree from a Russell Group university were not enough to outweigh his perceived lack of “polish” and understandable difficulty in adapting to what is, to him, a desirable but alien big city, corporate environment.

Amaan is not alone. As the documentary highlights, working class graduates with a 1st class degree are less likely to go into elite professions than their middle and upper class peers who achieve lower degree grades. Even when they do, they earn 16% less than their colleagues from privileged backgrounds.

It was hard for me to watch as Amaan persistently tries to secure his dream career in Finance, doing everything right but getting nowhere, not just because it is deeply unfair, but because I am not surprised.

I am not surprised because for eight years now I have been the director of a student and graduate job advertising business that aims to help break down the barriers between employers and the graduates they want to hire by enabling companies to be more transparent so that both parties know exactly what they are looking for.

And it does help to do that. But it does not help graduates like Amaan, who aspire to elite roles at companies that have a very specific, unyielding idea of who they are looking for. An idea that, try as we might, neither us nor anyone else in the graduate recruitment industry can change unless the employers themselves also want to change it.

It is worth me mentioning here that many employers do want to change, including those big city, corporate giants that Amaan, along with so many other graduates from all walks of life, set their sights on joining.

More than ever, diversity is a key factor in graduate recruitment campaigns for the employer brands we work with. Requests for more women in STEM or more BAME applicants, for example, are abundant.

And this is where the issue lies.

Employers are moving to become more diverse, but more often than not, they are focusing on only one area of diversity at a time. This is problematic not just because it negates the meaning of ‘diversity’, but also because, as another of the documentary’s subjects Elvis experiences, there appears to be an expectation that an applicant who ticks a diversity box will only be hired if they are still willing to conform to that “type” of person the company is looking for. In Elvis’s words: “you’ve got to play the game.”

How to Break into the Elite does an effective job of highlighting how hard it is for working class and minority graduates to climb the career ladder at the same pace and with the same apparent ease as their middle and upper class peers. It also touches upon how difficult it is for employers to open their doors to a more diverse workforce, breaking what are often the habits of a lifetime.

However, what the documentary does not do is to stress why it is so important for employers to widen their hiring nets, beyond the fact that it is unfair for those graduates of equal intelligence and promise who are left out.

A recent study by Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse employees in leadership positions have 19% higher revenues due to innovation than those whose teams are made up of the same group of people.

It is not only recent data that is making the case for hiring a diverse team. Back in 2015, McKinsey released their Diversity Matters report, which revealed that less diverse companies for gender and for ethnicity and race financially lag behind their more diverse counterparts.

We have had the proof that bringing people into a business from diverse backgrounds, enabling social mobility and not being afraid of change brings about high innovation and financial rewards for a long time now. And yet many companies would still rather force graduates like Amaan and Elvis to learn to become chameleons instead of benefiting from their differences.

At a time when no business can ever be completely certain of its future (hello, Brexit), the chasm between the upper and working classes is growing and audiences are becoming notoriously hard to engage, should we not be embracing diversity and taking every opportunity to build workforces whose diverse mind-set might just help us to bridge the gap between now and whatever the future holds?

You can find out more about how GradTouch helps employers with their graduate recruitment here or chat with Zac about the documentary on LinkedIn here.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

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