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Does a person's background matter when it comes to being successful at work?

Paystream News

Ashley Olliver

Tuesday 23rd Sep, 2014

When applying for a job, the top concerns for the majority of applicants are likely to be whether or not their CV is of a high standard and if they possess the right experience and skills for the role.

However, recent reports highlighting the issue of elitism in the UK show that the background they come from may be a worry for some when competing for a new role, but other research suggests recruiters are not interested in this, but rather in the skills a candidate has.

With so many conflicting arguments for the importance of a person's background when it comes to applying for a job, does it actually matter?

The elitism issue

Research published in August 2014 by the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission formed the basis of a report entitled 'Elitist Britain?', which detailed the supposed advantage that coming from a wealthy background and being privately-educated has had on people securing successful jobs.

Figures show that just seven per cent of the UK's population have attended private school, yet 71 per cent of all senior judges in the country, 62 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, 55 per cent of permanent Whitehall secretaries and half of all members of the House of Lords were educated in this manner.

Similar statistics were revealed in relation to the number of people in some of the UK's top roles who were educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge).

Therefore, this suggests elitism could be an issue when it comes to securing some of the country's top roles, but this by no means shows that private/Oxbridge education and coming from a well-off background is vital for being successful at work.

Background 'doesn't matter' for success

Although these figures relate to more conventional forms of employment and not entrepreneurship, some of the world's most successful businesses have been started by self-employed individuals without the best education.

Take Virgin founder Richard Branson for example, who despite attending boarding school, dropped out without completing his education and set up one of the globe's most famous companies, acting as an inspiration for self-employed people everywhere.

In addition, in response to the 'Elitist Britain?' report, director of public policy at KPMG David Gardner commented that unlocking the talent of individuals is much more important than the background they come from when recruiters are looking at their qualities.

He explained: "We are committed to the broadest talent pool, social mobility and economic inclusion working with our communities."

KPMG believes employers should work with a variety of schools to provide careers advice and work experience opportunities from a young age to help to equip school leavers with the right skills they need for the world of work.

However, there is no reason that anyone with a valid business plan cannot become successfully self-employed, as long as they have the right support in place.

Is having the right skills more important?

While anyone can become self-employed, it is important that contractors and freelancers ensure they possess coveted skills to allow them to compete for work in the market.

Recent research carried out by the Marbella International University Centre (MIUC) found that aside from skills related to the specific field a candidate wanted to work in, there were a number of general talents coveted by small businesses too.

For instance, 52 per cent of respondents to the survey cited team-building skills as important, while 57 per cent wanted workers who could use their own initiative and 69 per cent were looking for strong communication capabilities.

Visiting professor at the MIUC Dr Erika Polson commented: "Today's graduates are entering a highly-competitive job market, making the ability to demonstrate these skills vital."

Furthermore, a report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) welcomed the news that more people are gaining degrees, but emphasises the importance of workplace skills.

Assistant director of the UKCES Alex Curling explained: "It is vital that universities recognise the importance of giving young people the work-based skills employers look for when recruiting and ensure this is an integral part of learning.

"With more and more young people taking degrees, it is increasingly important that they are given the attributes needed to get into work - many of which cannot be gained from a textbook."

In conclusion...

So after looking at these various reports, does background matter with regard to success at work?

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