From education to employment

Improving diversity and inclusion in the workforce really matters

Alok Sharma addresses leading employers on the government’s initiatives to support disadvantaged groups into work and support greater diversity:

My father settled in the UK in the 1970s. And he looked for a job. He was pretty well qualified. But he could not make any real headway in landing a job which matched his experience and qualifications.

Very few interviews came his way. They invariably ended in a polite rejection. I remember reading some of those rejection letters. In the end, in frustration, he set up his own business, and made a success of it.

But even then, at a young age, I did puzzle over why he made so little progress with potential employers. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of experience and qualifications.

So I can tell you, improving diversity and inclusion in the workforce really matters to me. It’s personal.

I have just come from voting in the first round of the Conservative Party leadership contest. And so in a week where the Westminster bubble is even more frenzied than usual, it’s a real pleasure to be able to escape and speak to you all today about the issue of diversity and inclusion in the workforce.

I know this is an issue which all of us in this room care deeply about. Particularly how we support greater diversity across the UK workforce.

Because all of us recognise that a more diverse workforce makes for a more productive workforce.

That ensuring that people from any background, any gender, ethnicity or age, have the opportunity of a good career, that no profession is closed off, benefits all of us.

And if you want to get all hard edged about it, let’s be frank. Diversity impacts the bottom line.

It is not just a social justice imperative. It is a key ingredient for business success. In my view the future is bleak for any employer whose employees do not look like, sound like or think like their customer base. At all levels of the organisation. From the bottom, right to the top.

After a year in the Foreign Office, precisely 2 years ago to the day on 13 June 2017, I was appointed as the Housing Minister in the government. The day after we had the immense tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. Being involved in the response to that dreadful event had a profound impact on me, which will last my lifetime.

And we should today take the time to remember those who lost their lives. And those whose lives were changed forever by that tragedy. My heart goes out to them.

The inquest into the fire is ongoing, but one thing is clear. We need to ensure that no community in this country ever feels ignored. That no one feels left behind. And people feel represented.

But representation means more than being listened to by your MP, or local council. It means seeing people like you working at the top of every industry and profession, and knowing that there is a chance you can as well.

Ethnic minorities

That’s especially true for people from ethnic minorities in the UK, who too often have seen ‘White Collar’ take on more than one meaning in top professions.

The ethnic minority employment rate now stands at a record high. For the first time two thirds – 66.5% – of working age people from ethnic minorities have a job.

On the surface this is great news and a testament to how our careful management of the economy, focus on skills and a welfare system designed to help people overcome their personal barriers to work, are all delivering for families.

And it’s also a testament to employers like you, who recognise the value of a more diverse workforce.

But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see that there’s much more to do.

Yes, ethnic minority employment is at a record high, but 66.5% is the same rate as the nationwide employment rate in March 1984.

It has taken 35 years for Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds to enjoy the same employment prospects as the country at large.

And in that time, the country at large has moved on too. The UK-wide employment rate is now a record 76.1%.

In that time the ethnic minority employment gap has shortened, down to an all-time low of 9.3 percentage points, showing that progress is gathering pace.

But I don’t want to wait another 35 years to catch up again.

While my fellow MPs may have spent today focusing on her successor, one legacy that the Prime Minister leaves behind is her recognition of the hard truths behind the enduring disadvantages many people in Britain face.

It’s why she commissioned the Race Disparity Audit in 2017, which showed the true scale of barriers faced by many people from ethnic minorities. Why she challenged departments like mine to ‘Explain or Change’ the results.

And why my own department has used the audit’s findings to identify 20 challenge areas across the country where ethnic minority employment prospects are lowest. To change that inequality.

From the work of our local jobcentres in these areas it was clear that one of the biggest challenges facing young people in particular, was getting into professional careers they didn’t have any experience of. Where the application and interview process was often alien to them.

To tackle that we needed the help of employers themselves – who better to understand the expectations and skills needed to get a good job?

So our jobcentres teamed up last year with 85 employers to deliver a series of Mentoring Circles, bringing cohorts of young jobseekers from ethnic minority backgrounds together with mentors from potential employers.

Mentors from employers like Google, Barclays and KPMG – often individuals from the same background as the young people they were helping – then met these cohorts to offer support, such as interview training, work experience or simply a guide on how to enter a career in a company they might never have considered.

Over 500 young people took part in late 2018 and so far over a third have gone into a career or further training and study.

Last month, we began rolling these Mentoring Circles nationwide, not just in our 20 challenge areas but anywhere where young people, irrespective of their background, need extra support. From Oxford to Taunton to Scunthorpe.

Many CBI members are already taking part, so too are local councils, police forces and football clubs – all employers who see the benefit of nurturing talent in their local communities. I urge any of you not already taking part to reach out and do so.

The Race Disparity Audit also showed us that we can’t simply treat ethnic minorities as one single group, all facing the same challenges.

Within that 66.5% employment rate are groups like British Indians whose employment rate actually exceeds the UK average.

Equally there are groups whose employment prospects lag even further behind. British Pakistanis, for example, are twice as likely to be unemployed, with an employment rate of only 56% – not just decades behind the UK employment rate but lower than it has ever been.

Far from catching up, it’s not even on the same track.

These disparities can’t be easily explained away, and government and employers need to recognise that a one size fits all approach is not going to work.

Women and BME

In Yardley, on the outskirts of Birmingham, we’ve taken the lessons of our Mentoring Programme and applied them to a different under-represented group: local women from British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities.

Again, we are bringing groups together who face the same challenges, who can discuss these and provide inspiration to each other, and offering training and support from local employers.

The results have been clear – with the majority of the women on the programme entering work or further training, or study.

Older workers

Diversity makes good business sense and one area where this is especially true is in supporting older workers.

Not least because many of us here will one day be an ‘older worker’, if not already.

The official statistics, somewhat cruelly in my opinion, classify an older worker as someone over the age of 50. And we’re reaching the point where older workers make up almost a third of our workforce. By 2035 the over 50s will account for over 50% of the whole UK population.

There are 2.5 million more older workers in the UK in the last 10 years, but while more people are choosing to work longer there’s still much more to be done to ensure they are benefiting from a good career.

That’s why we appointed Andy Briggs as Business Champion for Older Workers. To actively promote the benefits of older workers to employers across England.

We’re also continuing to develop a new ‘mid-life MOT’ giving every worker the chance to review their career and skills, take the opportunity to change direction and direct them to the support available to help that.

And in February this year, we launched the mid-life MOT website, which shows people where they can receive guidance on their skills, health, and wealth. I encourage you to make the most of this tool with your employees.

New technologies are already having a major impact on the jobs that we do, with many roles becoming reliant on skills that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago.

I think it’s better for any of us to have the luxury of a self-imposed mid-life crisis, rather than having it forced on us by having our skills made redundant.

Again, working with employers is key. Through our National Retraining Scheme, combined with setting new national standards for the digital skills which we all need, we are helping older workers not just future-proof their careers, but seize the opportunity of new careers in roles which might not have existed when they first entered work.


But regardless of those new technologies and opportunities, it is pretty staggering that in the 21st Century, despite decades of equality legislation across G7 countries, there is still a big difference between the employment prospects and average earnings of men and women.

I’m proud that the UK government has taken a global lead in tackling this.

Following new legislation – 10,000 large employers, many of you here, have just published the pay difference between male and female staff for the second time. So we can all see where the gaps still exist and where action is needed.

In my own department that gap is 0% across our 83,000 employees.

Many people are out of work due to caring for children or other family members. Of those, nearly 90% are women. Once out of work – employment prospects decrease considerably. By the time their first child reaches 12, an average mother’s hourly wages are a third below the father’s.

With an estimated 2 million returners – people who could return back to work but struggle to do so – there’s a huge bank of untapped potential out there. Far exceeding the near record 850,000 vacancies across our workforce.

The government is funding Returnership Programmes, together with employers. Some weeks ago I attended one hosted by Oracle at their offices in Reading. It was fantastic and the experience being offered by job seekers was hugely impressive.

The government has also introduced shared parental leave and the right to request flexible working patterns.

It’s also why our welfare reforms are built around supporting people to overcome their personal barriers to work.

Universal Credit claimants are able to claim up to 85% of their childcare costs, compared to 70% on the legacy system. Meanwhile, a flexible system of payments and removing the cliff edge the old system imposed, means claimants can take on the hours they want, gradually increasing their earnings as they go.

The latest jobs figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there are a record number of women in work. And I am pleased with the progress of women on boards. But that commitment to levelling the playing field has to be across the whole of an organisation. Particularly at mid-level which should be the spring board to senior management.

Disabled people

I am really pleased that since 2013, an additional almost 1 million people with disabilities and health conditions have entered the workforce. Having a disability or a health condition should not hold anyone back and employers should be encouraging everyone to apply for vacancies in their organisations.

Many of you in this room, I hope represent, the around 11,000 employers across the country signed up to DWP’s Disability Confident scheme. This scheme guides businesses on recruiting, retaining, and promoting those with disabilities and health conditions.

I held a Disability Confident event in my constituency some weeks ago. It was hosted by the Healthcare Company, Bayer, and I was delighted with the number of local employers, both large and small, which turned up to hear some powerful speakers making the positive business case for employing those with disabilities.

Along with helping businesses become confident as disability employers, our Access to Work programme offers up to £59,200 a year to help with the additional costs which an employee’s health condition may incur. From commuting costs to specialist equipment in the workplace.

These are 2 government initiatives that are having a practical and positive impact on businesses and employees right now. Driving forward inclusion in the workplace.


So before I go back into the madness of Westminster I want to thank you for helping us reach a place in the UK where, no matter your age, gender or ethnicity – you have a better chance of a good job than ever before.

But the very fact that we’re having this conference shows we all recognise there is still more to be done. I know that whatever the outcome of today’s leadership votes – equality and inclusion will be a central priority of the government. I now know that there are many employers like yourselves you share that commitment.So, I have an ask of each of you today. Sign up your company, if you haven’t already done so as a Disability Confident employer.

Sign up to participate in our Mentoring Circles programme. And sign up to take part in and host a Returnership session.

And I have an ask of the CBI. Let’s together arrange roundtables with your members across every region and every nation of Great Britain. To specifically encourage your members to sign up to Disability Confident, Mentoring Circles, and Returnership programmes.

Every employer I meet tells me there is a war for talent. Well I am offering you three tools to harness that talent.

And as one or 2 of my illustrious fellow MPs may say ‘Carpe Diem – Seize the Day’.

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