Being socially mobile at O2

Social Mobility is something O2 takes seriously – through our recruitment, but also in how we support young people.

I am very proud to work for one of the first companies to be selected by the Government as a Social Mobility Business Compact Champion – clearly demonstrating leadership and exemplary practice in the field of social mobility.

But for me personally, it really strikes a chord.

I don’t consider myself to be from a disadvantaged background.  Growing up I had all the things my friends did.  I qualified for free school meals, but didn’t stand out from those who paid.   My parents had divorced, which wasn’t that common but not unique.  Both my parents worked, as did others. I got my first job at the age of 14 (getting paid £1.75 an hour!) which was a little unusual, and have worked ever since.  Mostly I was just like my peers.

But I am also a determined individual when I know what I want – I started saving for a car 3 years before I could learn to drive.

I continued to work at various jobs all through school and college, holding down 20 hours a week plus overtime at a credit card call centre whilst studying for my four A levels (at that time, most of my friends only did three).  And I did well – I got myself into Bristol University.  Some of my friends went to uni, some went off to work.  I still hadn’t twigged that I had achieved anything out of the ordinary.

At university, I had the opportunity to interact with more wealthy and privileged students. Many had an innate confidence in their future plans – they seemed more secure about their career paths, knowing things would work out.  I didn’t have a career in mind, not that I wasn’t ambitious, more that everyone I knew had ‘just got a job’.  It hadn’t even occurred to me that I should be planning and establishing myself as a good candidate for any particular field.

It was the relative confidence of my university peers that really stood out.  They understood the opportunities available to them, had access to advice and guidance from connected people, and also a safety net in the event that their best laid plans didn’t work out.

The significance of the difference dawned on me towards the end of my course.  I noticed that I didn’t have the networks or connections that other students had.  Whilst I was serving pints and wondering what to do with my physics degree, others were exploring graduate schemes and gaining work experience with their parents’ work colleagues.  It totally passed me by – and I’m not saying that I didn’t have the opportunities – I just wasn’t even aware to look out for them.

Some might describe it as a class divide, a gap in confidence or attitude, a lack of awareness of my options – whatever the cause, I became aware that there was a potential looming gap in future career success.  Luckily my grit and persistence helped me get to where I am today – I just took the long way round.

As a child entitled to free school meals and the first (and still the only) person in my entire family to go to university, I am one of the few who are considered to be socially mobile.  I now have a great job in an amazing company.  But I am aware that this required a few lucky breaks, from people who were prepared to take a bet on me, even though I may not have been as polished or confident as some of my peers. I’m always reminded of the fact that I could so easily have lost my way, and not found the opportunities to reach my potential.

I wonder how many young people, with the intelligence and confidence to be amazing, are not even aware of the opportunities, let alone how to get them?

At O2, our Early Years recruitment programme, Talentum, is competitive – it attracts a high number of applicants and we are looking to recruit the best.  We see them as our future leaders, so have a rigorous and varied recruitment assessment process looking at their qualifications, attitude, business acumen, and confidence. Role playing exercises make up part of the recruitment process, where the most confident can demonstrate their leadership skills.  For someone with corporate experience, it can be easy to spot how to perform well in such tests, to understand what we are looking for.

But for people without a connection to this world, for people like me whose mum is an admin assistant in the local college and whose Dad is an office manager for a local importer of herbs and spices, this world is mysterious and baffling.

And this is why we have invested in GoThinkBig.  As well as graduate schemes and traditional work experience, there is a need for young people, particularly without a personal network, to gain insight into the world of work.  To shadow someone for a day, to see what it’s like inside a company.

We try to open our doors to young people, offering over 10,000 work and skills opportunities that are accessible to all across the UK.  And we are calling upon others to do the same.

GoThinkBig is disrupting the traditional model of work experience – offering a range of experiences to help young people gain the skills and insight they need to get their foot on the career ladder.  And sometimes just raising awareness and improving confidence is all it takes for someone from a less privileged and connected background to compete for the top jobs out there.

I wish GoThinkBig had been about in my day – I needed somewhere to find out about the basics of how to start a career, beyond just getting a job.  The ‘inside scoop’ on what it’s like to work in a large organisation, or a particular industry, can really make the difference in how young people apply and interview, and ultimately in weather they get to start their chosen career.

We should never underestimate the power of opening our doors to enable young people from all walks of life to begin building the confidence, knowledge and skills to shape their future working lives. The Social Mobility Business Compact provides a powerful way to encourage more employers to play their part in unlocking talent and potential, regardless of postcode. I sincerely hope that many more businesses will sign up and show their support for a more socially mobile and inclusive Britain.

If you are interested in joining GoThinkBig to create and promote work and skills opportunities for young people, please contact camilla@gothinkbig.co.uk.