MI6 drive to recruit working class spies sees it named one of UK's best employers for social mobility

Gabriella Swerling
David Johnston OBE, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, told The Telegraph that MI6

For decades it has remained synonymous with that well trodden pathway - a tap on the shoulder which would happen at Eton, Oxbridge or government. That revered tap, so they say, would then propel the chosen candidate into a life shrouded in secrecy, mystery and glamour.

Yet now spy bosses have managed to eschew stereotypes in a bid to attract new hires. 

The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), otherwise known as MI6, has joined the ranks of the top 75 UK employers who have taken the most action on social mobility in a bid to recruit working class spies.

The Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), a charity which aims to make practical improvements for young people from low-income backgrounds, has compiled data on banks, engineering and law firms, government department and retailers. 

The charity launched its annual Social Mobility Employer Foundation Index three years ago, however  2019 marks the first time that one of Britain’s intelligence agencies has entered the list. 

According to the rankings, MI6 features at number 73, ahead of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Barclays bank. 

David Johnston OBE, chief executive of the SMF, told The Telegraph: “They are very aware of the stereotype; that you go to Eton, Oxford and then you become James Bond.

“They also realise that there’s an awful lot of talent in the country that would not even consider working for them or think that they would be suitable candidates.”

The rankings come as MI6 after MI6 launched a recruitment drive to attract increasing numbers of women and ethnic minority entrants in a bid to shed its “macho” James Bond image

The SIS saw an upsurge in interest since the Salisbury nerve agent attack on the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in 2018 and blamed by the Government on the Kremlin. 

However it continues to push recruitment drive, with the agency is looking to recruit 800 new staff by 2021.

Mr Johnston added that MI6 has since been trying to reach out to young people in areas and categories who would not previously consider working for the intelligence service, as well as trying to promote its apprenticeships. 

The traditional recruitment pool of young graduates remains the same. However SIS bosses are reaching out to careers representatives at increasing numbers of institutions to encourage people to apply for them, the charity boss added. 

“Internally they’ve also been looking very carefully at their workforce data and how diverse and reflective of society it is.” 

The Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6, headquarters on the River Thames, London. Credit: Anthony Devlin /PA

A total of 125 employers who employ over 1.1 million people in the UK across 18 different sectors volunteered themselves for entry in this year’s Index, answering around 100 questions across seven key areas. 

The Index ranks the UK’s employers on the actions they are taking to ensure they are open to accessing and progressing talent from all backgrounds. It highlights the employers doing the most to change the way they find, recruit and progress talented employees from different social class backgrounds.

The top five companies as accountancy and consultancy firms PwC, KPMG UK LLP, the water company, Severn Trent, property company JLL and multinational law firm, Baker McKenzie.

Researchers also found that 85% of respondents to a question about client priorities said they feel their clients want them to be diverse in terms of socio-economic background - almost as close as employers who said race (96%) and gender (99%).

Nearly 40% ask whether or not candidates were eligible for Free School Meals, whilst almost 20% ask the postcode candidates grew up in and 17% the occupation of their parents. 

 Research has consistently shown that people from more affluent backgrounds take a disproportionate number of the best jobs and that employers tend to disproportionately employ graduates who went to private schools and a small number of universities.

The charity said that while the results of this year’s survey are promising “there is still more progress to be made”. 

Oxford and Cambridge university are still visited by Index entrants more than 72 universities combined (although this has fallen from 2017 when they were visited more than 110 universities combined).

The SIS, commonly known as MI6, is the foreign intelligence service of the UK government. It is tasked mainly with the covert overseas collection and analysis of human intelligence in support of national security.

Government Spokesperson said: "Including the Secret Intelligence Service on this list recognises the work being done to remove barriers to inequality and to encourage people from all walks of life and ages to join.

“The service continues to work hard to broaden its appeal and is committed to being a workplace that is representative of the country it serves.”