Social mobility has rocketed to the top of the business agenda in the wake of the coronavirus crisis as companies ramp up efforts to close the opportunity gap. 

No Limits x Lifetime logo (September 2021)

The Covid-19 pandemic has widened the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in society, and retailers are rethinking their strategies to ensure that they attract and retain talent from a diverse range of backgrounds. 

Retail Week itself has joined forces with apprenticeship provider Lifetime Training as part of our ongoing No Limits social mobility campaign.

The partnership will support 5,000 new apprentices over the next 12 months through the new Ecommerce Excellence Programme, which has been designed to provide learners with the skills they require to work in the digital economy.

Although retail has always been recognised as a proponent of social mobility – the route from shopfloor to boardroom is much lauded – few retailers are recognised among the champions in that arena by the Social Mobility Foundation. But lessons can be learned from the initiatives under way and gaining traction in other industries. 

From innovative uses of data and technology during the recruitment process to the championing of career development programmes, Retail Week takes a look at six companies outside the sector that are setting the social mobility benchmark. 


Professional services giant PwC came out on top of the Social Mobility Foundation’s annual Employer Index Report in 2020 for its work in a number areas. 

Two young women sat at a desktop computer as if one is training the other

Social mobility has rocketed to the top of the agenda post-Covid 

During the Covid-19 crisis, it ramped up support for employees who were at the early stages of their careers within the business.  

At a time when working remotely makes it difficult to get to know new colleagues, PwC assigned all new starters a ‘buddy’ to help them through the onboarding process and outline career development opportunities.

Knowing that social mobility across the UK was likely to be further impacted in the post-pandemic recession, PwC also beefed up its outreach programmes.

PwC’s virtual classrooms allowed the company to reach a broader range of people from different social and economic backgrounds across the UK

For example, it held a Virtual Insight Week for almost 2,000 college students and launched a series of virtual skills programmes, including the ‘New World. New Skills’ series.

PwC’s virtual classrooms allowed the company to reach a broader range of people from different social and economic backgrounds across the UK. 

Furthermore, as a result of the upheaval around exams and the cancellation of work placements, PwC decided that, for the first time ever, all participants in its summer internship programme would be offered full-time roles upon graduation, providing even more young people with desperately needed certainty regarding their careers. 

Severn Trent

One of the founding members of the Social Mobility Pledge, Severn Trent has a long-held commitment to ensuring that no employee or job candidate receives less favourable treatment as a result of their socio-economic background.

The Coventry-based water company has partnered with Hereward College for the past six years, offering internships to students with disabilities and educational needs – young people who are three times more likely to be unemployed than their peers without disabilities.

The work experience opportunities offered by Severn Trent boost their chances of finding work after leaving college.

Indeed, Severn Trent itself has taken on a number of interns full-time following the nine-month placements.

The company regularly visits schools in social mobility ‘cold spots’ – areas with greater levels of deprivation, fewer good schools and fewer available professional jobs – across the Midlands to talk about its various education programmes, as well as its graduate and apprenticeship schemes, in a bid to attract youngsters from disadvantaged areas.

The FTSE 100 business also offers apprenticeship schemes of its own and is taking on growing numbers. It enrolled 13 young people onto its schemes in 2019/20, compared with four in 2017/18 – bucking a national trend that saw the number of apprenticeships being offered decline by almost 200,000 over the same time period.

Remarkably, a third of all social mobility ‘cold spots’ across the UK are in communities served by Severn Trent, making the opportunities it offers even more crucial in tackling the problem at a national level.


A key step that a number of businesses have taken over the past few years to accelerate their social mobility strategies is to begin recruiting blind – stripping out information such as applicants’ names or the university they attended from the hiring process. 

Almost half the businesses surveyed by the Social Mobility Foundation in 2020 no longer request an applicant’s name when recruiting – up from 18% just three years previously. More than a third no longer ask for grades, while 46% do not request the name of the applicant’s university.  

Accenture has partnered with a diversity software programme, which has helped it remove the need for human screening in the first phase of the process

Accenture is among the companies putting technology at the heart of its recruitment process in order to strip out unconscious bias and make its graduate assessments more inclusive and less intimidating to candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds.  

The consulting giant has partnered with a diversity software programme, which has helped it remove the need for human screening in the first phase of the process.

Applicants instead create their own online profile, including their interests, values and career aspirations. Socio-economic background indicators are also included in order to ensure candidates are assessed and recruited in a fair manner, removing any bias towards applicants that studied at Russell Group universities, for instance. 

Accenture’s Discovery platform also strips out the need for candidates to have any past consulting experience in order to be selected for an interview, meaning that applicants from all backgrounds and walks of life are given an equal opportunity to impress. 

As part of the digital interview process, the firm also uses virtual reality (VR) technology to allow candidates to role-play scenarios that showcase their behaviour, attitudes and values. 

Combining these technologies, Accenture now recruits around 700 graduates every year based on their merit and potential, rather than their work experience, background or which schools and universities they attended.  

Greene King

Back in January 2019, Greene King launched The Stepping Up Report, a whitepaper designed to break down the barriers to social mobility and outline its commitment to creating opportunities in the hospitality sector for people from all backgrounds. 

The pub operator and brewer has stepped up that commitment since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis and has been lauded for its work in the social mobility space. 


Greene King runs a scheme helping ex-offenders into employment 

For the past two years, Greene King has run its Releasing Potential programme, which, much like schemes run by retailers Timpson and Halfords, helps ex-offenders into employment. In the first year alone, the scheme supported 50 former inmates from prisons across northwest London into work. 

Greene King has stepped up its focus on internal career progression, too, providing more opportunities for its staff to climb the ladder within the business. It has set a goal for 80% of its pub general managers to be promoted from within – up from 64% in 2019. 

It is also well on the way to achieving its target of creating 20,000 apprenticeships by 2022, with any unused funds from its Apprenticeship Levy pot being redistributed to other businesses that have the capacity to create more apprenticeships.  

During the pandemic, Greene King set up a Team Member Support Fund of £500,000, which was put in place to help staff who were in the greatest financial need during the crisis.

Department for Work and Pensions

Much of the focus when it comes to social mobility is often placed on recruiting from a diverse range of backgrounds – but it shouldn’t stop there.

In order to create a robust social mobility strategy, it is crucial that companies ensure opportunities for professional development and career progression are provided to all employees. 

Yet, according to the Social Mobility Foundation, only 26% of businesses have a retention or progression strategy.  

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is setting the bar high when it comes to the organisations best supporting their existing employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds to climb the career ladder. 

DWP has introduced two staff development programmes, Insight and Aspire.

Insight offers employees the opportunity to carry out periods of work experience in other teams to develop different skillsets and potentially open up new avenues for career progression they might not have previously considered.  

Aspire, by contrast, focuses on classroom-based learning and mentoring to help staff develop.     

Outside these programmes, DWP also participates in a broader cross-government mentoring scheme, which specifically targets employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer launched a new initiative earlier this year to promote social mobility and racial equality across its UK operations. 

The Freshfields Aspiring Professionals Programme, put together in partnership with the Social Mobility Foundation, is a three-year course that will take on 100 new students aged 16 to 17 every year.

Freshfields aims to attract young people from social mobility ’cold spots’ and help them gain access to professional careers.    

Students will take part in skills sessions, have the opportunity to shadow Freshfields employees and have access to a mentor for the duration of the three-year training programme.   

“Increasing diversity and inclusion across the legal profession is not only the right thing to do; it’s essential for our business and for society” 

Claire Wills, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Unveiling the initiative back in February, Freshfields’ London managing partner Claire Wills said: “We strongly believe that career success should not be defined by an individual’s social background or ethnicity, and we feel we need to do what we can to address the systemic issues that create barriers for many.

“The new programme will enable us to reach those with less access to privilege and opportunity, and help equip them with the tools and knowledge to succeed.

“Increasing diversity and inclusion across the legal profession is not only the right thing to do; it’s essential for our business and for society.” 

The launch of the Aspiring Professionals Programme marks the latest step in Freshfields’ broader campaign to champion social mobility.  

The firm already runs the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme, which is at the heart of its efforts to address the under-representation of Black men from less socially mobile backgrounds in large commercial law firms.

The programme has awarded 82 scholarships in the first eight years since its creation.  


Data is at the heart of every good social mobility strategy – and KPMG has led from the front in this respect. 

The big-four auditor started collecting diversity data back in 2014 – the year it revealed its diversity and inclusion targets around gender, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation. 

Two years later, it took that a step further and started collecting data on its employees’ socio-economic backgrounds by asking which schools they attended or whether anyone in their family had attended university before.  

All KPMG colleagues have access to the data through its central HR system, which provides a snapshot of how diverse its workforce is and allows it to highlight any areas of concern. 

KPMG building in Canary Wharf flanked by two other skyscrapers

KPMG began collecting data on employees’ socio-economic backgrounds in 2016

The company urges employees across the business to share this data during the induction of new workers, via internal communications, and through its Count Me In and Fairer Futures campaigns, both of which promote the importance of inclusion and social equality.  

Such is KPMG’s commitment to social mobility, it also uses its position to champion the cause externally in conversations with partners and clients. 

It has used its participation in the BEIS Professional and Business Services Council to share best practice and urge other organisations across different sectors to accelerate their social mobility efforts. 

Retail is just one of the sectors that KPMG and others will be hoping to engage – and there are plenty of lessons the industry can learn from other businesses. 

Retail’s standing as a proponent of social mobility has perhaps never been under greater threat in a post-pandemic world, particularly as the number of store-based roles on offer continue to decline.

But the sector can take plenty of inspiration from social mobility’s shining stars in its bid to build back stronger.   

Get involved in No Limits

To find out more about the No Limits campaign or the apprenticeships being offered though our partnership with Lifetime Training, contact Retail Week editor Luke Tugby on

Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #RWNoLimits.   

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