Growth Through People: gender and the productivity puzzle

The UK Commission on Employment and Skills has just published an excellent report, Growth Through People.  It sketches out, in considerable detail but in clear language, the puzzle of how the UK has a high level of employment; relatively high levels of high level skills, measured by graduate level qualifications; but low productivity levels.  Productivity, as yesterday’s budget yet again showed, is crucial to our general prosperity.

The most important implication of the UKCES analysis is to shift the focus from simplistic assumptions that boosting the sheer numbers of highly qualified people is a solution to our economic problems, to a much more nuanced and complex consideration of how skills are actually used in the workplace.  Qualifications are not the same as skills – obvious enough;  but add to that the evidence that skills/qualifications are not themselves enough to raise productivity and it’s clear that we need a much closer understanding of how jobs are defined and people managed if we are to find a positive way forward.

Investment in training has been in decline over the past few years, so that we should not be lulled into thinking that because we have greater numbers of highly qualified people coming out of the education system that is enough to sustain the overall competence of the workforce.  “There are various different indicators of learning across the UK. Worryingly, these point to one important and common trend; a significant decline in engagement, whether captured through participation rates, average training volume or funding….the NIACE Adult Participation in Learning survey, which covers the whole of the UK, has also seen a decline since 2001, with participation in learning in the last 3 years falling from 46 to 38 per cent of adults in 2013. Perhaps more significantly, over a similar period, the duration of training fell sharply, with the result that the average training volume per worker declined by about half.”

But back to the key  point about utilisation.  Two quotes sum this up:

“A large number of workers remain overskilled or overqualified. In both cases, underutilisation represents a waste of talent and has significant consequences. “

“The stable level of 30 per cent of graduates mismatched to jobs requiring lower skill level means a much larger number of overqualified graduates than we had before .”

The report points out that UK managers tend themselves to be rather less well qualified, relative to their staff, than in other countries.  One consequence may be that they are less good at making use of the talent at their disposal:  not just in recruiting the right people, but in enabling them to work to their capacity, to be properly motivated and rewarded, and to progress in their careers.  If this is the case,  my guess is that it is not so much a matter of individual failings as of the general culture of management, including the incentives which managers themselves operate under.

And so we come to the PP-relevant issue:  how far is this underutilisation a matter of gender?  In other words, since we know that women embody an increasing proportion of the nation’s skills, is it these skills which are not being properly recognised and rewarded?  The report has little to say about this;  I’m hoping that the UKCES can be persuaded to extend its analysis further.   It might do something to unlock the productivity puzzle.

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