Speaking To Welsh Government: The Real Conversation
23rd October 2014
What prevents young people in Wales doing apprenticeships? Is university your only option? Why are women, black and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities under-represented in the work place? These and many more hot, pressing issues were discussed last Thursday in the Welsh Government's latest Real Conversation.
The Real Conversation is about people talking. It's about young people, employers, key organisations in Wales and Welsh Government all talking to each other. If you want to tell the Welsh Government your thoughts on the most topical issues, hear what they have to say, and converse with key players in the relevant fields, get yourself to a Real Conversation.
Today's Real Conversation was on Apprenticeships and Diversity. It was held in the plush upstairs suites of one of Cardiff's leading concert venues, the Motorpoint Arena; a place normally way too loud for any conversation! If you want to move straight onto my report of what was said, you can skip the paragraph below, which is for anyone who wants to know how the day worked and if it'd be something they'd be interested in next time.
To start off, we went to a rather comfy holding pen and were treated to sugary pastries, teas and coffees, and padded seats. This relaxed us well and oiled our talking muscles. After about half an hour, we then moved to the main suite, which was made up of about 11 tables of about 10 people each. They were all randomly populated and were a diverse mix of young people, employers and 'other professionals'. I was officially the lattermost, and represented ProMo-Cymru, the people behind CLIConline, theSprout and Meic (although I'm rather glad to say, I still fit the 'young people' tag, too).
"Why, oh why, should the best candidate for a job be overlooked just because they're a particular sex... or so on?"
After some introductions from our bubbly host (whose name escapes me), followed by the Deputy Minister for Skills at the Welsh Government, Julie James AM, and finally from the BBC Wales Economics Editor, Sarah Dickins, we began. They kept their intros short and sweet and really shared their passion for breaking down barriers to employment. This might sound mundane on the surface, but, as Julie James AM articulated (captured in the tweet below), why, oh why, should the best candidate for a job be overlooked just because they're a particular sex, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or so on?
We started with a few silly Who wants to be a millionaire?-style questions, which loosened us all up well - especially as we'd all just sat amongst a table of strangers - and engaged us with the rather cool voting process that was to be used throughout the whole one and half-hour (or so) session. When we moved onto the real deal, the really important conversation, we had about 5 key, thought-provoking questions, the odd video to introduce them, our chance to vote, then 15 minutes to chat away. It was all very informal and was guided on each table by a facilitator. Each table's comments were noted by a scribe, and this information will be passed to Welsh Government to help guide them in future policy-making. A great process and a great opportunity.
“What is the main barrier preventing employers being proactive in employing people [from under-represented groups]?”
The first question was “What is the main barrier preventing employers being proactive in employing people [from under-represented groups]?” This question was mainly focussed on disability, and other questions on gender and ethnicity followed. We watched a clever, powerful mock video of Ricky Gervais pretending to be an employer giving equal opportunities to people with disabilities, but then truthfully having an excuse to exclude almost everyone with disabilities! The way Gervais turned the issue on its head and so blatantly lied about being an equal opportunities employer brought laughter to most of the room, including Sarah Dickens, but then we all quietly pondered, “Actually, should we really be laughing at this?” A job well done, Mr Gervais.
Interestingly, as we saw on the big screen at the front, the Millionaire vote showed that employers thought the main barrier to this proactive recruitment is... employers' attitudes! I wonder how many would put their hands up and confess to their own attitudes being like this! Nonetheless, hats off for at least this much honesty; that's what these events are all about. The Equality Act of 2010 put equal access to employment in law - regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation – but these results mean that a large part of the working world believe discrimination is still rife.
I know from the scores of applications I did last year when I was without full-time work that most application forms don't ask for any personal information of this kind so that it can't be used in the decision-making process. However, they do often ask you to fill in a separate “Monitoring Form” with such details, so who knows how many employers use this info against you in the recruitment decision-making process. These forms are used, or so employers say, to assess whether or not they're getting a diverse mix of applicants so that they can best work out how to improve this diversity. So, these forms can be used, theoretically, for good or bad, and, to their credit, at least some of the form is normally optional, but the point is, there is no definitive way of proving how employers make their decisions in most cases. Therefore, the good will of concrete Government legislation outlawing employment discrimination might not bear fruit everywhere in reality because of employers' subjective, discriminatory views. This is why employers' attitudes are still so crucial despite the law and probably why employers in the Real Conversation voted to say that is still the main hurdle to overcoming inequality of opportunity in recruitment.
Interestingly, we had a nurse on our table who works in operating theatres and she respectfully made the insightful point that there are actually some roles that people with certain disabilities can't do, and we shouldn't be afraid to say so. For example, in an emergency operation, she said she wouldn't be able to call on a wheelchair user to rush around fetching vital equipment. However - and this was a call repeated throughout the day – she said it is important to focus on what the candidate can do. If that individual would be a good candidate for something else, she said it would be important to forward him/her for that other post. Ultimately – something unanimously agreed on on our table – the best candidate should get the job, no matter what they look like, what religion they follow, whatever.
For this reason, we also discussed the issue being embodied in the current football managers debate: should there be a quota requiring the workforce to be representative of the diversity in that nation, locality, etc? Whilst this might discriminate against the best candidates in some cases, our facilitator mentioned that some under-represented groups, like black and ethnic minorities, would argue that this is necessary for them to even get to the door; they are that discrimated against. Is it right then that a bit of short-term discrimination now is needed to overcome this deep-rooted, age-old discrimination?
“What is main reason for gender under-representation in the workplace?”
The second question of the day was “What is main reason for gender under-representation in the workplace?” All three groups - young people, employers and other professionals - overwhelmingly voted that “gender stereotypes” is most to blame. We watched a simple, hopeful and quite effective video by young female mechanics, who appealed to other young females not to be turned off from applying for engineering because it's a so-called “job for men”. They said they're never treated any differently just because they're female and their opinions are counted equally to their male colleagues. It was powerful just to see these women on-screen in these jobs. Again, they argued, if you're the best person for the job, why shouldn't you get it? If it's a job you are interested in and you believe it could be fulfilling for you, why shouldn't you apply for it?
On our table, we were careful to say that although more males might like engineering, tractors, dinosaurs or blue than females, it is still okay for girls to do these things. The same, we agreed, was true in reverse: it is okay for males to do traditionally “female” endeavours. We treaded carefully here; everyone chose their words carefully so nobody could misinterpret what we were saying: we were not saying certain tasks or roles are “male” or “male-only”, or “female” or “female-only”, we were saying these tasks or roles are open to anyone and it's okay that more boys might be interested in tractors, but it's also okay that girls are, too. The reason we were careful was because there is such a tendency these days for people to jump on you and call you discriminatory at the drop of a hat, without them hearing you out or attempting to understand what you're saying. It's perhaps an unhealthy bi-product of a rather good thing: society becoming more open-minded and anti-discriminatory over things. It reminded me of when we earlier considered that although we should always prioritise what someone can do in employment (or elsewhere) rather than can't do, it's okay that sometimes people can't do something and it's okay to say so, too.
We asked the young people whether they'd ever faced any peer pressure to do a gender-stereotyped job and it was encouraging to hear that they hadn't. Our male young person said it just doesn't seem to exist in school these days. Interestingly, our nurse participant told us that lots of older males are now taking up nursing because it's no longer perceived as a job for women or gay men. It's interesting that breaking down both gender and sexual orientation stereotypes/stigmas may have both contributed to reducing this under-representation.
"The main reason for under-representation of black and ethnic minority groups..."
We then moved onto ethnicity. Many thought that the main reason for under-representation of black and ethnic minority groups was because of cultural barriers. Specifically, many thought this was because of cultural, primarily familial, expectations of what a “good” job is. Many thought, whilst trying not to generalise to a whole community, that many black and Asian families expect their children to grow up to do traditional professions, such as medicine or teaching. This would, therefore, deprive some other jobs of (as much) black and Asian representation.
We then moved onto the wider issue of expectations and how it might influence who applies to what. It was argued by some that the former Labour UK Goverment's target to get 50% of young people into universities has had some large adverse effects. For example, some argued, this target has meant that apprenticeships are being neglected of attention and support. Whilst we might have a national apprenticeship scheme in Wales, few realised it exists and, apparently, not even Funky Dragon, the Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales, was aware it exists until recently. So, we pondered: why isn't it publicised better? Could it be because of an excessive focus elsewhere? Moreover, one individual argued that this target has led to the creation of “false” courses just to meet the targets and make up the numbers, when it would have been far better if those young people used their skills elsewhere, in more “meaningful” roles/courses. Nobody really wanted to single out specific courses in case they offended anyone, but everyone seemed to agree they existed.
Scores of young people turned out to give their opinions to the Welsh Government, all of which were noted by scribes.
So, it was first argued that family and Government can be key in driving expectations, but it was then also argued several times that schools have an influential role, too. From my own experience in a Cardiff state school, university was expected of pupils, it was often presented as the only option and nothing else was ever really mentioned. It really was like “If you don't go to university, you've failed”. Our school-university conversion ratio was banded around as a key school selling point for years, and teachers seemed determined that we'd go to university at all costs to meet these targets. So, my school's expectations were clearly influential, but were they driven by the school's self-interest (a selling point), parental pressure on the school, or a misguided but genuine belief that university was the best option for everyone? Perhaps they genuinely saw this drive towards university as part of their duty of care towards the young people they oversaw? The only conclusion we really drew from this section was that expectations are vitally important and are affected by so many powerful forces in young people's lives. So, it's great that so many people who wanted to go to university had support but it should have really been said that it isn't the best (or only) option for everyone.
For this reason, one person in our group argued that there needs to be more employers coming into schools to talk about their jobs, sectors and routes to get there, so young people can get broader and more realistic expectations of their futures. This would also help with the wider, age-old problem: so many young people - of all backgrounds - enter courses or jobs with unrealistic expectations and soon drop out. For example, as of 2010, nursing drop-out rates are 20% in Wales. How many young people don't even apply for jobs because of the unknown - they just don't know what the jobs are or how to do the application form? Someone from a careers service said that the Welsh Government wants schools to take more responsibility these days for employer-pupil contact, such as industry visits, but, unfortunately, this means they're being done less and less.
“What is the main benefit of diversity [in the workplace]?”
The last question, which serves as a good final word for this piece, was “What is the main benefit of diversity [in the workplace]?” It must be said that equal access to employment was discussed as a right throughout the Conversation but this was about what benefit it could bring. It threw up interesting discussion. The majority of the audience overwhelmingly voted that the main benefit of diversity was a boost to creativity and innovation. However, our table came to the conclusion that the greatest benefit would be to the company's reputation. Whilst this might sound like a shallow case of self-interest at first, breeding reputation is something that has a snowballing effect: yes, it might boost productivity and provide a competitive advantage (two of the other voting options in this case), but if a place gets a reputation for being open and diverse, it will only further encourage a diverse mix of applicants to apply for future posts there, which will only bring more and more creativity and innovation. A positive note on which to end.
If you have any experience of apprenticeships or work-based discrimination, or have strong feelings about under-representation of any kind, do chip in.
Join in the conversation in the comments below (it takes one minute to register), or carry on the conversation already happening on Facebook or Twitter by using @therealconvs or #realconversation
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