27 June 2019

In the tech world a private education is no golden ticket

By Aidan Cramer

The recent news that nearly 40 per cent of all people in ‘high-ranking jobs’ had an independent education is undoubtedly a cause for concern.

The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission found that though only 7 per cent of all Britons went to a fee-paying school, they occupy a disproportionate number of powerful positions. ‘Increasingly divided’ was how Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, described the findings. “Social mobility,” he said, “remains low”.

But what is a ‘top job’? After all, neither politics nor the media drive our economy, and trust in both has fallen far in recent years. The British tech economy, in contrast, is healthy, even flourishing: a Tech Nation report found that the tech sector is growing more than two-and-a-half times as fast as the rest of the economy.

As for new job creation, the disparity is even greater. Jobs in the tech sector rose five times the rate of the rest of the economy. We can be fairly confident, then, of what the ‘top jobs’ of the future will be.

The start-up subculture stands outside the rest of the world of work for a variety of reasons. One of them has to do with startup hiring processes, which are abandoning the outdated CV-and-cover-letter model.

For years, privileged young people have been able to exploit this tired 500-year-old practice by virtue of specialist teaching and preparation, the result of which has been an inexorable trend towards carefully manicured but ultimately identikit documents conveying professionalism at the cost of personality.

I work closely with hiring managers and founders exclusively in the tech startup space. Raw grade-scores are out; determination, desire and all-round character is in.

This does not guarantee that independently educated people won’t still have some kind of an advantage. But it does at least open the door to the possibility that those with a state education will be granted a better chance of getting a job in tech.

And our own data goes some way to supporting the idea that educational background matters less and less in the startup world. In the second quarter of this year, more than half of all hires made through my platform, JobLab, were from non-Russell Group universities.

But tech has already shown itself to be a potent force for democratisation in many areas, from work to social action. Social media played a major role in facilitating the Arab Spring, for instance. And employers are increasingly able to find the kinds of people they want to hire directly, or through a third-party platform that gives a more comprehensive view of candidates.

When you can browse the catalogue of job candidates yourself, you can make approaches according to strict specifications. You’re also confronted by personality traits, skills or experiences that perhaps you didn’t realise you wanted in a new hire until you came across a certain person. If you entrust a recruiter to find talent on your behalf, you necessarily have to broaden your criteria.

And even if you disagree with the assertion that the ‘top jobs’ of the future (or at least some of them) will be in the tech world, a startup is a highly effective accelerator for those willing to learn. In a borderless startup team, you’re forced to learn new skills and take on responsibility early, and you have few places to hide.

The development of these qualities is of huge benefit to just about anyone, and stands in good stead even those who leave the tech space for something else. In other words, tech may facilitate the ascent of non-privately educated people to the ‘top jobs’ even if you doubt the ongoing growth and rising importance of the tech sector.

However you think about it, a divided society is rarely a good thing. And in the world of work, there is always the risk that the privileged will hire others from similar backgrounds, thereby creating (or consolidating) a dual-speed employment landscape. But just as tech has disrupted the media, the retail world, and the transportation space, it will disrupt recruitment—and the inequalities it brings about—too.

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Aidan Cramer is the co-founder of tech recruitment company JobLab