Progression and quality of work

The week got off to a brisk start with a Resolution Foundation/CBI conference on the future of the labour market.  Three panel sessions, packed with a mix of analysis and practitioner input (how I wish that academics would learn from think tanks about how to get information across effectively…).

A central theme was about the quality of work.  Partly this was because Matthew Taylor was one of the contributors.  Extensively trailing his forthcoming report on the gig economy, he told us that the primary focus will be on this theme of the quality of work, recognising that measuring quality is much more difficult and contentious than measuring quantity.  So although we all know that the volume of employment has held up remarkably well in the post-recession period, there is much more uncertainty around how good those jobs are.

So what do we mean by a ‘good’ job.  Well, pay is pretty important – decent remuneration. RF analysis shows that the lower paid have gained proportionately more than the higher paid, largely because of minimum wage legislation.  But non-wage elements are playing a bigger part, notably pensions.  Auto-enrolment has boosted the numbers of lower-paid people who are now in pension schemes.  This has to be a good thing.  It increases people’s security over the life course – security being another significant element of good work.

But here we enter more ambiguous territory.  Evidence on the self-employed (along with agency workers and zero-hours contracts the fastest-growing area of work) shows that many of them earn relatively little and have little security, but they value their independence and so rate their quality of work highly.  Gig workers diverge, with some miserably exploited but some quite happy to live with uneven work patterns.

There’s much much more to discuss and research here.  Torsten Bell, the FR’s director, raised the possibility that ‘peak insecurity’ might have passed, so that we may be moving into a period of greater employment stability rather than a continuing erosion of worker’s conditions.  For me, though, the most interesting aspect was the emphasis from several speakers on the notion of progression.

Progression means extending the timeframe so that we look at what happens of employees over years rather than at a single point in time.  It means that the impact of ‘bad’ jobs – ones that in themselves are not congenial or well rewarded – is mitigated if there is progression out of them;  and ok jobs – not bad, but not too good – offer prospects of moving up.  My sense is that at a very general level the UK labour market is not too good at offering progression – a clear line of sight, for people to aim at.  How far is this a necessary corollary of a flexible labour market?  That’s hard to say.

Progression has obvious relevance to the Paula Principle. Women tend to acquire skills as they go along more than men do.  At the same time there are still strong biases in the way promotions are decided.  This is the basic PP tension, between competence and reward.  So any debate around progression and quality needs to look at the different trajectories that people follow, and the reasons for them.

Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI boss, concluded the event by calling for stability in the framework of business-education relationships and on skills policy.  As the governor of a college, I say amen to that.   Her final point of all was that when it comes to skills we need to think about learner progression rather than just participation – in other words, quality rather than quantity.  Another amen to that.

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