Inequality is a major problem for many 18- to 24-year-olds, but Neil Bentley believes WorldSkills UK can play a part in helping the disadvantaged move up in society

“Young people losing hope over life chances,” was the damning conclusion of the recent Social Mobility Barometer, which looked at public attitudes to social mobility in the UK. The report certainly makes for challenging reading for all of us interested in seeing young people succeed in work and life.

A poll of nearly 5,000 people across the UK, it revealed that nearly 48 per cent believe that where you end up in society today is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are. This is compared with only 32 per cent who believe everyone has a fair chance to get on regardless of their background.

In addition, the poll also reveals a geographical divide, with 71 per cent claiming that they feel that there are ‘fairly or very’ large differences in opportunity depending where you live in the UK.  

Clearly, we have a problem with social mobility in this country

However, what struck me most about the report was the feelings of social pessimism among young people. The barometer found that half of young people think the situation is getting worse, and only 30 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds believe it is becoming easier to move up in society.

Clearly, we have got a problem with social mobility in this country, but I don’t want to lament the barometer’s findings because I’m not sure it takes us very far. The more interesting question, and the one we should all be focusing on, is how we can address the challenge.

Among the troubling data, there is more than just a glimmer of hope. While 18- to 24-year-olds are clearly very concerned about social mobility, the findings showed that they are actually the most optimistic that those from less advantaged backgrounds can get on in life.

I think that this greater sense of optimism is rooted in our younger generation’s innate ability to tackle a challenge and make the most of it. This was certainly shown at the recent turnout for the general election. The best estimates indicate that over 20 per cent more 18- to 24-year-olds voted than in 2015. This showed what those of us who have the privilege of working with young people already know to be true: they believe in and want to help shape a better future for all.

I certainly see this optimism when I meet members of Team UK and also young apprentices from around the world who are in training to represent their countries at WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017. Background is irrelevant when it comes to world-class competition and there really is a positive message when it comes to social mobility from these competitors.

Past and present members of Team UK are products of their local FE colleges, training providers and businesses across all industries. That in itself is a real statement about the ability of the UK’s education and training system to give our young people the start in life they deserve. But it is only half the story.

After they have finished their competition journey, members of Team UK continue to work with us visiting schools and businesses in their local communities. They are now hugely successful in their own right. Our skills champions include numerous entrepreneurs, key employees at well-known organisations and inspirational mentors. They have an important message to share: by investing in young people’s skills and building their confidence we can accelerate their progress in work and life.

That is also why, as a member of WorldSkills, WorldSkills UK, together with the 75 countries and regions that make up the international skills body, promoted ‘Skills for All’ on World Youth Skills Day on 15 July. This United Nations-designated day seeks to generate greater awareness of the importance of technical education and training in transforming the lives of young people around the world.

The members of Team UK are living proof of this.

Dr Neil Bentley is chief executive of WorldSkills UK