Bristol and the non-white graduate scheme

I don’t like barging into situations of which I know little, so let’s say for the sake of argument that any statement I make in this post begins with the phrase “It appears to me based on the information I currently have to be the case that”.

The story most of you will have picked up on is Bristol City Council attempting to recruit two graduate trainees from ethnic minority applicants only, as part of measures to redress the ethnic balance of their employees as against the population they serve.

So, some points;

  • Every time I have been closely involved in a story which has been reported in the Daily Mail, at least one major fact which changes the nature of the story in a fundamental way has been reported incorrectly, hence my wish to be cautious here.
  • However, Sunny Hundal’s defence of Bristol does not appear to stand up to scrutiny as far as I can tell. The graduate training scheme in local government is a reasonably well-paid job for someone newly out of university, with guarantees of employment for longer than most of us have job security, and a good chance of further employment at the end of it.  Indeed many people at the end of the graduate scheme seem to leap into quite high management positions very quickly. (Bitter, me?).
  • To say that they would not be kept on after two years if they didn’t make the grade is beside the point – I wouldn’t expect to survive two years in any job if I wasn’t up to it. I’m fairly confident this would all be good enough for what Bristol are doing to be within the law, because there is indeed a large training element to the graduate management scheme, but to claim that a full-time long-term well-paid position is “not a job” is specious, whatever extras it comes with.
  • I’m not instinctively hostile to various measures which make a Council more closely resemble the population it serves, all else being equal it is a good thing that it should do so. I’d be even keener for some evidence that the elected Councillors themselves are moving in that direction. It’s not clear that’s the case from a quick scan, although a number of photos don’t seem to be working so you never know.
  • That said, I’m often wildly sceptical of the statistical and evidence base used for this kind of thing. Is it just the Council, or the Council and its contractors? Is it balanced by the gender and age make-up of the workforce, or are these treated as separate variables? Low quality reports on this issue appear quite regularly at meetings of people who want to look like they’re doing something.
  • If the evidence base is robust, is it reasonable to blame the Council’s recruitment processes? It may be, or it may not be. For example some ethnic minority communities have very low workforce participation rates among women, as it remains more common to be a housewife. Others have high levels of employment in small family businesses, which will necessarily reduce the number available to work for the public sector. Still others just don’t aspire to be council staff, targeting jobs in medicine, or law (sure, Councils employ solicitors, but…)
  • Given the above, is the graduate training scheme the right way to redress this balance in any case? It’s hardly likely to bring the participation rate from those who are not in formal employment up, it’s just likely to be a competition for recruiting those ethnic minority graduates who will, in reality, do very well for themselves anyway. Of course two in a workforce of thousands will be a rounding error anyway, so it could be argued that the symbolism is what’s important.

Corrections welcome from those with more information or wisdom than me.

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One response to “Bristol and the non-white graduate scheme

  1. Some very good points raised there, especially about the limitations of statistics; Statistics are often mis-understood and much abused by those who fail to grasp their nuances.

    There has long been elements of positive discrimination in the public sector, particularly in the community development sphere and in primary care. Whilst it can be argued that this is to a certain extent justified, for example a BME mental health support worker will need to have kinowledge of the particular issues affecting their service users so maybe a middle-class white person is not best suited to that role…. but by saying this we’re already making assumptions based on class and ethnicity which may not necessarily be true.

    Second point is that on the whole positive discrimination entrenches discrimination… Councils can point to a few initiatives and areas (like communities) which allow boxes to be ticked on charts but, lets not fool ourselves public service is highly segregated on the lines class, gender and ethnicity. Just think of four areas of local councils operations 1. Town Planning 2. Cleaning/catering 3. Social Work and 4. Highways…. I’m sure most people will find big differences in the make up of the respective workforces. A hoilistic approach needs to be taken across the board rather than focusing on one particular area.

    In my experience local government was full of discrimination and assumptions, I found myself the only male in a Socail Services department for quite a while.. not a great experience… and did it affect my career? Almost certainly. For some reason most of the managers were male but when it came to hands on care management work the workforce was at one point entirely female (the few males in that post all successfully applying for funding to do a Social Work degree).

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