Alok Sharma MP: Our ethnic minority employment rate is still stuck in the eighties
Employment Minister Alok Sharma warns that when it comes to BAME employment Britain is "still a place where inequality is all too real".
Among the other anniversaries this year, 2019 of course marks the point where history catches up with us - the year that Ridley Scott imagined in his 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.
Things have not quite developed as the film portrayed. Thus far we do not have flying cars and humanoids of Scott’s 2019, but given the dystopian vision of Blade Runner that’s no bad thing.
Our cars may not fly, but we are progressing towards them driving themselves. We have seen significant growth in robotics and AI replacing some roles but technology is also driving growth in other jobs, helping to achieve the current record levels of employment in the UK.
That record level of employment, standing at 32.53 million jobs should give us hope. All while still embracing new technologies and yes, dealing with the challenges of Brexit.
But for parts of our society 2019 still lags behind the hopes of the past. Our ethnic minority employment rate is 65 per cent, a record high – but still over ten percentage points behind the overall UK employment rate. In fact, it’s the same as the overall employment rate was in the early 1980s. That’s over three decades behind.
In some communities the progress has been much faster. Among the British Indian community, the employment rate stands at 74%, the same rate that the UK enjoyed in 2015. Only three years behind rather than three decades.
But if you’re black, you face the opportunities of 1984 (67%). British Pakistanis and British Bangladeshis have an employment rate of only 55%, and British Chinese 60%, both lagging behind any record for UK employment stretching back to 1971.
As the recent Bias in Britain series showed, the same job applications from ethnic minority candidates received far fewer positive responses then those from white candidates.
The scale of employment inequality was laid bare in the Government’s Race Disparity Audit in October 2017, showing those from a Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Mixed background were two and a half times more likely to be unemployed.
Stamping out bias from employers is key, but an equal challenge is helping young people from ethnic minority backgrounds see themselves in careers which are often invisible to them.
Testing a new approach to tackle this, we’ve identified 22 ‘challenge areas’ across the country, from Bradford to Barnet, where the ethnic minority employment gap is greatest – over 20 percentage points in Bradford for example.
Our local Job Centres joined up with 85 major employers like KPMG, Microsoft and Fujitsu – exactly the sort of large white-collar employer which many young BME jobseekers were never even applying to.
Together we ran 63 ‘Mentoring Circle’ sessions, using local community networks to reach out to young people at risk of joblessness or looking to improve their career prospects and discussing, as a group, the sort of challenges they faced and how to overcome them.
Vital things like interview techniques, crafting CVs and having the confidence to seek out the sort of training and courses needed to get a good job. Or arranging visits to employers like HSBC and ITV to get experience of roles and the interview process.
These courses ran through late 2018, and while the impact will be assessed over time – it’s heartening to see a third of the participants are now in work, further education or training. People like Bhagyashree Thakore, who took part in three mentoring sessions in Barnet, had interview training with KPMG and has successfully applied to a pharmacist training scheme at Boots.
We need to tackle the latent discrimination that some employers show, even if unconsciously.
But discrimination often hides behind arguments of merit, claiming to be choosing the best applicant ‘regardless of background’ often means choosing someone like you. Where some high-skill employers create a self-perpetuating clique.
Initiatives like the mentoring circles are helping to counter this. Working with employers already committed to tackling inequality, and demystifying their roles and application process. Because inequality can reinforce itself when people don’t feel they’re the right ‘fit’ or that they lack the skills needed.
Mentoring breaks through that, connecting employers directly to jobseekers. It’s something our network of hundreds of Job Centres across the country are in a prime position to tackle – identifying which local communities are being left out.
That’s why we’re going to challenge inequality anywhere in the UK, rolling out the mentoring circles initiative across the Jobcentre network, including all young people who might benefit regardless of their background, in London from March and the rest of the country from April.
We can all be glad we don’t live in the dystopia of Blade Runner’s 2019, but when many of our employment chances are still stuck in the eighties then action is clearly needed.
Employer mentoring is part of the work Government is doing through our job centres to challenge inequality. Taking this nationwide will tackle some the root causes.
But bringing employment rates for ethnic minorities up to the present day will take much more, we’ll continue to evaluate this work, publishing the results so everyone can see and assess where we’re succeeding and where we need to step up our efforts.
Britain in 2019 is still a place where inequality is all too real. For all the progress we’ve made since 1982, employment inequality is still a great challenge, and one that Government and employers must tackle together.
PoliticsHome member, the Chartered Management Institute has responded to Alok Sharma, saying "Alok Sharma is right to highlight the barriers that BAME men and women face in securing work. But we need also to recognise the obstacles they face once in work." Read the full response here.