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Neil Morrison

HR Director – Severn Trent Water


Operating over a vast area from just north of Bristol to Derbyshire is a challenge in itself and managing a diverse workforce of over 6000 people carries with it a real responsibility.  However, one of the biggest challenges which has emerged is social mobility, argued Neil Morrison, HR Director of Severn Trent Water at the April webinar of the ABP.   In too many instances, employees, especially younger ones with less confidence, will feel that they are perceived as inadequate for certain roles, as their background precludes them from such employment routes.  Severn Trent are using various actions to improve social mobility within the organisation, and the community it supports, with considerable success: staff feel safe, are encouraged to thrive and encouraged every day to perform the best work of their lives.

So what is Social Mobility and why does it matter?  There are numerous definitions but one appropriate to this presentation is “the chance to achieve betterment and be safe and comfortable when above original station in life”.  It matters for a number of reasons, but the main concerns are:

*           restrictions due to “anticipated entitlement”.  New horizons are difficult to imagine, achieve, exist in and are harder to navigate

*           restraints on achieving a better experience of Society

*           low socio-economic status often equates to:

–           restricted school opportunities, lower grades leading to less prestigious universities

–           limited careers advice

–           Limited work experience opportunities- especially “informal” work experience arranged with parents/guardians

–           higher incidence of health problems

–           limited early years provision

–           poor transport infrastructure

*           social immobility is most noticeable in social mobility “cold spots” – this is where there is poor infrastructure, fewer aspirational employment opportunities and little general class mobility, mostly although not exclusively in costal and rural locations.  London, by contrast, has an abundance of opportunity and easier progression opportunities.  30 out of the 32 London Boroughs are in the top 20 per cent of socially mobile areas.


Founded by former UK Cabinet Minister, Rt Hon. Justine Greening, and UK entrepreneur David Harrison, the Social Mobility Pledge represents a powerful and pioneering shift towards creating truly purpose-led organisations committed to social mobility, with a determination to reverse the trend.


How are Severn Trent addressing the problem?

Approximately two thirds of higher position vacancies are filled by internal promotion from within the organisation.  Executive hiring has to run so that it aligns with the prevailing needs and approach; but internal candidates are encouraged to apply.

However, this does not address the problem that some people are self-deselecting before applying. The first task is to get senior management to agree that there actually was an issue and then persuade them that barriers should be removed to provide opportunities to progress.  Having achieved consensus that change in approach was necessary:

*           There needed to be recognition that much of the population dwelt on a sense of unfairness, engendering a view that educational outcomes would be determined at birth

*           Work should have some form of social purpose.  The Board now give 1% of profits to the “Socially Purposeful Organisation” run by journalist Will Hutton, where there is a mutually beneficial relationship

*           There is an overlap between the needs of customers and the aspirations of employees.  There are no zero hours contracts, even in cold spots

*           The company aims to be high profile in the communities they serve and has an obligation to extend its ethics and share best in practice behaviours.

*           Progress on social mobility is evidenced by the fact that on the impacts/outcomes sections of the Social Mobility Index. Severn Trent has rocketed up the employer index rankings from 38th to 3rd, behind PwC and KPMG UK.

*           Keeping up with new initiatives is important.  An additional £0.5m per year now is given by the company to charities involved in alleviating social problems. A large portion of donations are to charities in the area of skills, education and the environment.


How has this been achieved?  As in most areas of change, this has been done largely through a series of “quick wins” and micro steps, with incremental changes being achieved through “Nudging Change”. Severn Trent is focusing on:

*           Resourcing – practicing blind recruitment wherever possible

*           Commitment to development

*           Working in collaboration with educational institutes in social mobility cold spots with low mobility and lower parental involvement

*           Offering Year 10 work experience, raising aspirations and raising the possibilities of a business career

*           Offering apprenticeships, and pitching them as a “Degree without Qualifications”

*           Once in the organisation, providing adequate support at work and building confidence as part of talent management activity.  Engendering the confidence to aspire them to “GET THAT JOB”

*           Ensuring adequate resources in training and monitoring

*           Communicating the commitment and advertising how much the organisation is investing in people.

*           Having the correct emphasis in methods in recruitment and selection.  A different focus was needed on Diversity and Inclusion.  While much effort has, rightly, gone into pushing D&I in the case of obvious minorities, nobody has been speaking up for white working class males, who have now become the main problem demographic.  For example, only around 60% of leakage apprentices could pass the first stage in assessments.  The assessments were just too academic and mathematics orientated.


On recruitment and talent management, a FTSE 100 approach for graduate and higher level staff works – but not for white males applying for apprenticeships where the development of practical skills are crucial to realising potential and career development.  A number of initiatives have proved successful in addressing this problem:

*           Social Media has proved to be a safe and effective way to recruit

*           Advertising does not work on its own; it has to be accompanied by removal of “stigma” associated with apprenticeship training

*           The application and assessment process needs to be as open, unbiased and democratic as possible, with a more critical look at where an individual can best deploy their skills and temperament

*           In order to avoid bias and ensure enshrinement of the “Talent Management Cycle”, a certain amount of “blind” selection is encouraged

*           Be consistent in performance measurement and outcome renewals to ensure that career development is unbiased, builds resilience and avoids “dead ends”


A new initiative from Severn Trent has been the decision to build a £10m Academy, to create “immersing experiences” to accelerate learning.  The new premises will house an educational establishment which will focus primarily on technical skills training and formalising learning.  It will also have a wider offering of skills development. Topics covered will be leadership, engineering and hard science, e.g. chemistry with specific relevance to the water industry, with a view to developing the most proficient skills in the industry.   It has yet to open, but in time it is expected that it will cover

*           most technical areas

*           offer relevant skills and qualifications

*           partner with universities

*           encourage confidence in participants and build resilience

*           offer facilities for local communities to use outside of office hours


Despite recent successes, the work has only just begun.  One of the most challenging areas going forward is identifying the schools which require support.   While the Social Mobility Foundation can provide a good signpost, once identified a school has to agree to be part of the scheme and be given the energy to rise to meet the challenge.


Click here to view the slide deck.

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