Beneath the headlines: record high employment rate, but what’s more important – quantity or quality?

Competition for new jobs

The UK employment rate has hit a joint record high of 76.1%, according to the latest official figures. The unemployment rate was estimated at 3.8%; it has not been lower since 1974. The economic inactivity rate was also close to a record low.

It’s not surprising that such record figures are often highlighted as ‘good news’ headlines. However, there has also been an increasing focus on quality of work over the past decade and the impact this has on people’s lives – reflecting concerns regarding developments in working practices, as highlighted by a recent City-REDI briefing paper. It has therefore been argued that the record employment rates are not necessarily representative of a ‘good news’ story.

Concerns

Concerns over working practices include the rise of the gig economy, unequal gains from flexible working, job insecurity and wage stagnation, to name but a few. The City-REDI paper outlines a number of ongoing concerns related to:

  • weak productivity growth;
  • employment insecurity and precarity;
  • in-work poverty;
  • skills shortages and skills polarisation; and
  • the impact of automation, technological change and the gig economy on the nature and experience of work.

Indeed, analysis has shown that much of the recent rise in employment is due to a ‘surge in low-value work’, which is holding back productivity growth. Many people are stuck in low paid insecure work, all of whom are contributing to the high employment rate.

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported that four million workers live in poverty, a rise of over half a million over five years – meaning in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment. The causes of this increase include poorly paid jobs – particularly under temporary and part-time contracts – and a lack of progression routes for people in low-skilled work.

In addition, the rising gig economy shows no signs of slowing down, more than doubling in size over the past three years and now accounting for 4.7 million workers, according to a new report. An interesting finding of the report is that the majority of gig economy workers use this platform to supplement other forms of income, suggesting that workers are not getting enough of an income from their primary employment.

It has also been shown that advances in technology have pushed some workers into poorer quality jobs than those lost, something which cannot be addressed without some kind of policy intervention.

Health impact

Not only is poor quality work bad for the economy, it is also bad for people’s health.

A recent report which examined the impact on social inequalities of policy initiatives and reforms to extend working lives in five European countries, highlighted that working conditions are also known to influence post-retirement health, and for those with lower socioeconomic status, workplace arrangements may be causing or contributing to poor health.

A number of studies have highlighted the link between good work and health and wellbeing. As stated by a What Works for Wellbeing briefing paper, “Being in a job is good for wellbeing. Being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better for us.” It has also even been suggested that being in a poor quality job is actually worse for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed.

Moves towards improving quality

Recent developments in the UK to address such challenges for the future and quality of work include:

  • the establishment of The Work Foundation’s Commission on Good Work in 2016, which aims to better understand the factors shaping change, and the nature and scale of opportunities and risks, so as to promote policies to achieve ‘good work’;
  • The commissioning and publication of the independent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices in 2017 which called for policy to address the wider issue of creating quality jobs for all; and
  • the Government’s Good Work Plan, published in December 2018, which sets out the reforms planned to help improve quality of work – the first time the UK Government placed equal emphasis on the quality and quantity of work.

In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) launched the UK Working Lives survey, the first robust measurement of job quality in the UK. This has since contributed to government thinking and recommendations around ‘good work’ in response to the Taylor Review.

Despite the widespread agreement over the need to adopt ‘good work’ principles, however, there remains no agreed set of indicators of exactly what it encompasses nor metrics for measuring progress towards it.

What is good work?

As the City-REDI briefing paper and other studies indicate, defining good quality work is complex as quality means different things to different people.

A range of factors contribute to different people’s perception of quality and fulfilling work, including pay, flexibility, security, health and wellbeing, nature of work and job design. The CIPD survey highlights seven dimensions of job quality:

  • pay and benefits
  • employment contacts
  • job design and nature of work
  • work-life balance
  • work relationships
  • voice and representation
  • health and wellbeing

Of course, there is no one size fits all solution.

Final thoughts

While productivity and employment rates undoubtedly remain important, they alone are clearly not enough to understand the health of the labour market; the quality of work also needs to be considered.

As shown by the visible shift from quantity to quality of work in recent years and the recent developments from the government and others, ‘good work’ is undeniably on the policy agenda. However, as the City-REDI paper suggests, there should be a focus on promoting ‘good work’ amongst the most disadvantaged groups such as the young, people with disabilities and those working in hotels and restaurants. It is also suggested that there is scope for further research on good practice in promoting ‘good work’ in establishments of different sizes and in different sectors.

As highlighted in the Taylor Review, “All work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment.


You may also be interested in some of our previous employment-related posts:

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A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 1

Traditional Scottish Traveller bow tent at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

This month is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM).

GRTHM aims to celebrate and promote awareness of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) history, culture and heritage, and the positive contribution that GRT groups have made and continue to make to society.  It also seeks to challenge negative stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions associated with GRT groups.

Over the next two blog posts, we will raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today, and highlight some lesser known aspects of GRT culture and heritage.

Gypsies and Travellers are not a homogenous group

One common misconception is that Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are a homogenous group.

In fact, GRT is a term which encompasses many distinct ethnic groups with their own cultures, histories and traditions.

This includes Romany Gypsies, who today are generally of English or Welsh heritage.  Gypsies first arrived in Britain in the 16th Century. The term ‘Gypsy’ was coined due to a common misconception that Gypsies originated from Egypt. However, recent DNA studies suggest that they actually originated from the Indian subcontinent.  Some Gypsies may prefer to be known as either English Gypsies or Welsh Gypsies specifically.

Irish Travellers are Travellers with Irish roots, however, a recent DNA study suggests they have been genetically distinct from the settled Irish community for at least 1000 years. Irish Travellers have their own language – Shelta (also known as Cant).

Scottish Gypsies/Travellers are indigenous to Scotland.  Their exact origins are uncertain, but it is thought that they may be descended from the Picts, and/or the scattering of the clans following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  Certainly, Scottish Travellers tend to share many of the same Clan surnames – including Stewart, McMillan, McPhee and McGregor.

Scottish Travellers also have their own language – the Gaelic-based Beurla Reagaird.

European Roma are descended from the same people as British Romany Gypsies, and they are Gypsies/Travellers who have moved to the UK from Central and Eastern Europe more recently.  Some have arrived as refugees and asylum seekers. While they face many of the same issues as Gypsies, Irish and Scottish Travellers, they are also subject to a number of additional challenges.

There are also other groups that are considered ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ Travellers.  These include Occupational Travellers such as fairground and circus owners and workers and New Age Travellers – individuals who have chosen a travelling lifestyle for ideological reasons.

Distinct ethnic minorities protected by law

Whilst there are some similarities between GRT groups in terms of lifestyle, economic, family and community norms and values – and certainly in terms of the discrimination and poor outcomes that they experience – there are clear genetic differences between each of the groups.

As such, Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers are each considered ethnic minorities in their own right and protected as “races” under the Equality Act 2010.  Migrant Roma are protected both by virtue of their ethnicities and their national identities.

However, despite this protection, GRT groups are still subject to high levels of discrimination.

‘The last acceptable form of racism’

Indeed, prejudice and discrimination has affected GRT groups throughout history.

In the 16th century, any person found to be a Gypsy could be subject to imprisonment, execution or banishment.  Even after anti-Gypsy laws were repealed, discrimination continued.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for doctors to refuse to attend to Travellers.  And despite Travellers’ strong Christian beliefs, churches would often refuse to bury their bodies within their grounds.

And today, GRT people have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group across a huge range of areas, including education, health, employment and criminal justice.  They have the poorest health and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the UK, and are subject to high levels of racism and hate crime.

GRT groups still face barriers to accessing health services.  As part of a mystery shopper exercise by the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity, 50 GP practices were contacted by an individual posing as a patient wishing to register without a fixed address or proof of identity. They found that almost half would not register them, despite NHS guidance to the contrary.

And while racism towards most ethnic groups is now seen as unacceptable and less frequently expressed in public, racism towards GRT groups is still common and often overt – even among those who would otherwise consider themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘forward thinking’.  This had led it to be termed “the last acceptable form of racism”.

The 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that over 30% of people in Scotland would be unhappy with a close relative marrying a Gypsy or Traveller, and 34% felt that Gypsies or Travellers were unsuitable as primary school teachers.

Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults.

Prejudice and discrimination against GRT groups is not limited to the public – there is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.

Even politicians have openly displayed anti-GRT sentiment.  In 2017, the Conservative MP for Moray Douglas Ross, stated that he would impose “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers” if he were Prime Minster for the day.

His remarks were widely criticised.  Amnesty International’s Scottish director, Naomi McAuliffe, said “When our elected leaders use this sort of blatantly partisan speech, they set a terrible example that only serves to foster further discrimination and prejudice.”.

A lack of sites has led to a ‘housing crisis’

Mr Ross’s remarks reflect another common misconception about GRT communities – that they all live in caravans, purposefully choosing to set up on unauthorised sites.

The truth is that while Gypsies and Travellers have traditionally lived a nomadic life, living in bow tents, wagons – and even caves – over 70% of Gypsies and Travellers no longer live in caravans, having chosen, or being forced for one reason or the other – disability, old age, lack of suitable sites – to move into traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ accommodation.

For those who do still live in caravans, it is widely recognised that they face a ‘housing crisis’ – an urgent shortage of authorised sites to set up on, which threatens their travelling heritage.  It is this shortage that drives much of the use of unauthorised sites.

Of those sites that do exist, quality has been raised as a key issue.  Many sites can lack even the most basic amenities, and some are sited near recycling plants or in other undesirable locations.  Poor conditions and sanitation contributes to poor levels of health, exacerbating existing health inequalities.

Further inequalities

In our next blog post, we will look in more depth at the inequalities that GRT communities face – in health, education and employment.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.


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Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

Since 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has assessed the quality of undergraduate teaching in England’s higher education providers. The TEF rates universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and was introduced by the government which felt that universities were too focused on research.

It’s still too soon to say what the impact of the TEF will be on universities or student choice. One commentator believes it will “…lead to distorted results, misleading rankings and a system which lacks validity and is unnecessarily vulnerable to being gamed.” Others see TEF as the opportunity to drive a culture shift in teaching, resulting in “…innovative ways of teaching, more workshops and closer relationships with industry and the communities in which they were based.”

In any case, TEF may prompt universities to rethink their approach to teaching, adopting new ideas on everything from flipped learning to the learning space itself.

Powerhouses for the knowledge economy

“Higher education, is faced with the challenge of preparing itself to fulfill its mission adequately in a world in transformation and to meet the needs and requirements of 21st century society, which will be a society of knowledge, information technology and education”.

When those words first appeared, twenty-one years ago, in a UNESCO conference report, we were only beginning to get an inkling of the dramatic changes that were about to transform the face of higher education.

Since then, the knowledge economy has mushroomed, powered by a new wave of digital technologies. Automation, robotics, digital technology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence are now driving what’s known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Some have suggested that the impact of these changes on universities may be as profound as the effect of printing on medieval monasteries.

In many ways, higher education has risen to the challenges of the knowledge economy, and has often been at the cutting edge of technological innovations. But for many universities, the traditional model of campus-based teaching has not altered since the 19th century, and there are now calls for higher education to adapt its teaching and learning models for the new age.

New routes to higher education

Even before the dawn of the high tech era, higher education was making efforts to change the way we learn. The Open University (OU), this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was one of the first to offer alternatives to the traditional classroom-based teaching format. The OU brought higher education into people’s living rooms via late-night programmes on television. Its summer schools and local seminars gave students opportunities to exchange ideas and enjoy the full experience of a university education. And the OU quickly embraced the possibilities offered by the internet for interactive learning. Since its establishment, the OU has enabled more than two million people worldwide to achieve their study goals – many of whom didn’t have the opportunity, flexibility or the funds to reach their potential in the traditional world of higher education.

The MOOC moves in

But time has not stood still, and the OU is now one of many providers of online education courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – many of them free, or cheaper than university tuition fees – provide an affordable and flexible way for people around the world to learn new skills. The range of MOOCs has grown rapidly, taking in almost every subject, from environmental engineering to English as a second language, computer science to business and management.

And MOOCs have been moving in to compete for students who might otherwise have studied at a traditional university. For example the University of California, San Diego offers a micromasters course in data science that promises to equip students with the skills that form the basis of data science. The course is fee-paying, but the university underlines the long-term value of the course, highlighting the thousands of job vacancies in data science. The course website also includes endorsements from companies pledging that applications from individuals who have completed the course will have definite advantages over rival candidates. Students can take the course at their own pace, completing it whenever they choose, and located almost anywhere in the world. In addition, the course offers a pathway to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Master of Science degree in Data Science.

The advent of MOOCs has proved extremely popular, and today distinguished universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with more than 800 institutes of higher education around the world, now offer their own MOOCs.

Partnership approaches to skills development

As knowledge becomes the main driver of economic growth, employers are demanding higher level skills. A 2018 report published by Universities UK argued that universities are extremely well placed to help business and the wider economy to meet these challenges. But the report also acknowledged the need to change and adapt:

“The linear model of education–employment–career will no longer be sufficient. The pace of change is accelerating, necessitating more flexible partnerships, quicker responses, different modes of delivery and new combinations of skills and experience. Educators and employers need to collaborate more closely, and develop new and innovative partnerships and flexible learning approaches.”

In many cases, this is already happening. The University of East Anglia, for example is promoting entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. The centre is home to several SMEs, and provides a space for students to collaborate with commercial firms, and to discover, develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Another good example of university-employer partnerships is Coventry University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. This hi-tech production facility is a collaboration between the university and Unipart Manufacturing Group, which manufactures exhausts and other car components. It also provides training for students, with their time spent working on campus, as well as in workshops and at the manufacturing facility. In addition, this ‘faculty on the factory floor’ provides jobs – many students go straight from their degree courses to being full-time employees.

The changing face of teaching

Universities are central to knowledge creation and exchange, and we’ll be relying on them to be the engines of the knowledge economy. New approaches to teaching can ensure they rise to the challenge.


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Do we really need a middle class? How the UK Government should respond to the challenge of job polarisation

Women sitting at her desk doing paperwork

By Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, former government advisor and HR expert Kevin Green gave a TEDx talk entitled “Why our jobs matter now more than ever before”.

In his talk, he explains that technologies such as artificial intelligence have transformed the labour market and, unlike previous industrial revolutions, old jobs are not necessarily being replaced by better forms of work.

Instead, he warns, the economy is experiencing ever-increasing ‘job polarisation’. In this labour market, highly skilled, in-demand workers benefit from higher wages and flexible working conditions, whilst middle-income earners are finding their jobs disappear, and competition grows for low skilled, often manual work.

What does the research say about this phenomenon?

In 2017, the OECD published the report ‘Future of Skills and Work’, which highlighted that labour markets are polarising within some G20 countries. In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%).

As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown. In particular, the report found that countries experiencing skills shortages are paying higher rates for staff with desirable skills and that greater competition for low skilled jobs is holding down wages for the bottom half of earners.

Greater regional inequalities are also noted as a possibility, as employers are likely to locate in areas with a high concentration of high-skilled workers – which are often very different to the areas experiencing job losses.

However, the report does suggest that some groups may benefit. For example, it highlights that disadvantaged millennials, who have grown up with technology, may have an advantage over older, less tech-savvy workers.

Is technology the only factor leading to job polarisation?

Economist Andrea Salvatori has conducted extensive research and argues that job polarisation in the UK is far more complex. In a 2015 paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, he argued that although technology is a factor, the growth in high skilled jobs can be explained by the increase in the number of graduates since the 1990s.  Similarly, in a 2016 paper, he found that routine employment did not decline in organisations which had adopted technology and that workplaces which specialise in high skilled employment had grown dramatically, from 30% to almost 50% between 1998 and 2011.

One theory highlighted is that of MIT scholar David Autor, who suggests that while technology might be replacing workers in certain tasks, it’s also complementing them in other areas which are more cognitive and difficult to automate.

In addition, Professor Maarten Goos has suggested that offshoring and the global competition for labour has been a factor. In his view, companies have taken advantage of lower wages in foreign countries, particularly in middle earning jobs such as back-office administrative functions and in customer service positions. Highly skilled jobs have been less affected as the supply of skills is less readily available.

What are the social consequences of job polarisation?

Mr Green’s Tedx Talk is less about the economics of job polarisation, and more about the social issues which may stem from this divided economy. He recounts his own experience, describing himself as a ‘late bloomer,’ and recounting his journey from an administrative middle-class job in Wandsworth council to gaining promotion through further study.

For him, the real concern is that the chasm between low and high skilled jobs means that it will be increasingly difficult for some groups in society to progress in their careers. In particular, he highlights graduates looking for their first positions, as well as mothers returning to the labour market after a period out to raise children.

Research has also shown that increased job polarisation might be leading to discontent amongst low skilled workers, and that this could partially explain recent political divisions between those living in large metropolitan cities and those in left behind regions.

So, how should the UK Government respond?

Academics Dr David Hope and Dr Angelo Martelli recently investigated the role labour market institutions play in tackling wage inequality in modern economies. By analysing the economic data for 18 OECD countries from 1970 to 2007, they attempted to prove that national labour market systems could protect wages. They found that:

strong labour market institutions, in the form of coordinated wage setting, employment protection legislation, and high wage bargaining coverage, reduces the effect of the expansion of employment in knowledge-intensive services on income inequality.”

In addition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that there is a need to tackle inequality locally by focusing on the bottom of the labour market, particularly by improving working conditions for low-skilled workers.

Mr Green takes a similar viewpoint, and argues the solution is a ‘revolution in lifelong learning’. This means creating labour market institutions that help people trapped in low skilled work, so that they are aware of the opportunities available to them, and potentially providing funding to support them on their journey.


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Breaking down barriers: helping disabled people enter and sustain employment

“We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation for people with disabilities, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock their vast potential.Professor Stephen Hawking (2011)

In the UK, the disability employment gap – the difference in the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled people – has remained largely static for over a decade.

Just 48% of disabled people are in employment, compared to 80% of non-disabled people.  Employment rates are even lower for people with certain disabilities, such as learning disabilities (6%), and for people with autism (32%).

There are a number of reasons for this.  These include the personal barriers that people with disabilities face when working, a lack of appropriate support to help them into and remain in work, negative attitudes from employers and recruitment agencies, inaccessible workplaces and inflexible working practices.

Perceived barriers and prejudice

Employers are often wary of hiring people with disabilities.  A recent poll found that as many as 22% of employers openly admitted that they would be less likely to hire a person with disabilities.  Many more may have felt similarly but were less willing to admit to it.

According to research by the Centre for Social Justice, 63% of employers feel that there are significant barriers to employing someone with a disability.  These include:

  • concerns about their ability to do the job
  • the costs of making reasonable adjustments
  • the inconvenience of making reasonable adjustments
  • fear of increased possibility of litigation
  • concerns about their ability to integrate into the team
  • concerns about a potentially negative customer reaction

Given these negative attitudes and perceptions, it is no wonder that as many as 1 in 5 (21%) disabled people hide their disability from employers, and over half (58%) feel that they are at risk of losing their jobs because of their impairments.

Benefits for employers

In truth, research has found that there is a “compelling case” for hiring disabled people – although few (9%) employers recognise this.

Becoming more disability-friendly can significantly increase an employer’s potential talent pool – around 1 in 5 working age adults in the UK have some kind of disability.

The majority (around 80%) of disabled people acquire their disability during the course of their working life.  There are clear benefits to retaining an experienced, skilled employee who has acquired an impairment – not least avoiding the costs and inconvenience involved in recruiting and training new staff.

Research has also found other benefits. These include:

  • higher rates of retention, lower absenteeism and good punctuality
  • improved employer loyalty and commitment
  • improving access to disabled customers
  • improving staff relations and personnel practices
  • improving the public image of the company as a fair and inclusive employer
  • bringing additional skills to the business, such as the ability to use British Sign Language (BSL)

Adjustments often low cost

Research has also found that employers frequently overestimate the costs of reasonable adjustments. Indeed, according to ACAS, only 4% of reasonable adjustments do cost, and even then the average is only £184 per disabled employee.

In any case, the government’s Access to Work scheme is specifically designed to cover the majority of the costs associated with making reasonable adjustments, including the provision of special aids and equipment, adaptations to equipment, travel to and from work, and support workers.

However, not enough employers know about the Access to Work scheme; only 25% are aware of it.

Free support and advice

According to Acas, there are many things that employers can do to become more ‘disability-friendly’.

These include helping people to gain employment, by tackling unconscious bias, adapting recruitment processes, creating an inclusive workplace culture, providing appropriate training and support for line managers, as well as addressing basic issues such as access to buildings (particularly older buildings where adaptations are more difficult/costly).

Once in work, it is important to maintain an open dialogue between managers and employees in order to develop an awareness of individual needs and potential adaptations.

Wellbeing initiatives, and clear and consistent attendance management/return to work policies, including ‘keep in touch’ days during any period of absence, can also help disabled people to avoid ‘falling out of work’.

Employers can obtain support on attracting, recruiting and retaining disabled people in the workplace through the government’s Disability Confident scheme. They can also make use of Fit for Work – a national occupational health service that is free at the point of delivery.

A better workplace for all

While not all disabled people should be expected to work, a significant majority would like to work more.

Closing the disability employment gap is important – not just for the individuals involved, but for businesses themselves and the wider economy.  Social Market Foundation research has found that halving the gap and supporting one million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion.

There are some promising signs of progress.  Organisations as diverse as Barclays, Channel 4 and the Civil Service have all established innovative approaches to employee disability support and management.  Such initiatives not only help disabled employees directly, but also serve as a benchmark of what other employers can do to encourage and support disabled people within their organisation, and raise awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people for the organisation itself.

In many cases too, the improved working practices associated with becoming disability-friendly are of benefit not only to disabled employees, but to all employees, customers and service users too.


You may also be interested in our previous blog posts on supporting neurodiversity and mental health in the workplace.  

To see what other topics our researchers are interested in, follow us on Twitter.

A different perspective: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

“We need to admit that there is no standard brain” Dr Thomas Armstrong

It is estimated that over 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum and awareness of the concept of ‘neurodiversity’ is rising. It recognises that autism, and other conditions that affect how people learn and process information – such as attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalculia – are a form of neurological difference, rather than being assumed to be a disability.

However, there remains a significant employment gap – where people on the autistic spectrum are often willing and able to work, but struggle to find and maintain employment.

Employment rates for adults with autism are considerably lower than for other groups. For example, only 32% of adults with autism in the UK are in some kind of paid employment. This compares with about 80% for non-disabled people and 47% for disabled people as a whole.

There are also many people on the autistic spectrum who work, but are struggling to maintain employment or to progress their careers due to discrimination, lack of understanding and lack of effective support.

Barriers to employment

Many autistic people are simply brilliant people – highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented, yet unemployed” James Mahoney, Executive Director and Head of Autism at Work for JPMorgan Chase.

A lack of awareness and understanding means that some employers are fearful of the behaviour traits of people with autism, and the effect of these on their business, resources and other employees. Hiring processes, management practices and workspaces also tend to unconsciously favour ‘neurotypical’ employees.

Research has shown that standard recruitment processes are a key barrier to employment for people on the autistic spectrum.  Processes such as writing a CV, completing an application form, attending an interview, or doing a work-place assessment all rely heavily on social and communication skills. It may be difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to respond to open questions, or to abstract, hypothetical situations. They may be prone to conversational tangents, be overly honest about their weaknesses, or have difficulties in understanding body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact.

‘Good communication skills’ and ‘ability to work as part of a team’ are commonly listed as essential criteria in job descriptions – even though in practice, these skills may not be essential to the role. Thus, those on the autistic spectrum may find themselves ‘screened out’ of selection processes.

The workplace itself can also be challenging for people on the autistic spectrum. Office etiquette, social interaction and the sensory environment (such as sounds, lights, smells, interruptions) may present difficulties. People on the autistic spectrum may also suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, which can impact upon their working lives.

Thinking differently

“Asperger’s syndrome provides a plus – it makes people more creative. People with it are generally hyper-focused, very persistent workaholics who tend to see things from detail to global rather than looking at the bigger picture first and then working backwards, as most people do.”  Professor Michael Fitzgerald, Trinity College Dublin

Despite the challenges that they may face, research has shown that neurodivergent individuals also demonstrate a number of strengths of particular relevance to employment.

People on the autistic spectrum are often good problem solvers and innovative thinkers, with particular strengths in analytical thinking, memory, pattern recognition, and attention to detail. Some often have an exceptional ability to assimilate and retain detailed information, which can result in highly specific interests and technical abilities in specific areas of work.

Likewise, individuals with ADHD can have strong visual spatial reasoning and creative thinking abilities, and can be hyper-focused, passionate and courageous. Indeed, many of the world’s top entrepreneurs – including Sir Richard Branson – have ADHD.

As such, forward-thinking employers are beginning to recognise that they are missing out on a large pool of potential talent. Large-scale corporations like Microsoft, JPMorgan, EY, SAP and Ford have all recently instigated neurodiversity initiatives. There has also been an increase in the number of small companies that employ almost exclusively autistic people – such as IT and compliance consulting business Auticon – and specialist employment agencies – such as Specialisterne – that help match autistic candidates with employers looking for specialist technical skills.

What can employers do?

Traditional workplaces are built to suit “neurotypical” people. However, employees who fall slightly outside the range of what is considered typical often have valuable skills that employers need, such as lateral thinking or innovative problem-solving. It’s necessary to make adjustments for people on an individual basis to ensure they can perform their best in their role.” Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon

There are a number of things that employers can do to help support employees with autism in the workplace. Many of these are low-cost and easy to implement, and have the potential to benefit all employees. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently published guidance for employers on becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ – covering areas such as recruitment, induction, management and provision of on-the-job support for neurodivergent employees.

They recommend considering alternatives to recruitment interviews that focus on the ability to perform the job role to ensure that organisations are not unintentionally screening out neurodivergent individuals. These may include work trials, work samples, practical assessments, and mini apprenticeships. They also suggest providing candidates with detailed information about what to expect, being clear about the purpose of assessments and being aware of the bias of ‘first impressions’ and the limits of interviews to judge on-the-job performance.

In the workplace, suitable adaptations may include enabling employees who are disturbed by open-plan offices to wear earphones or face a wall, or to work from home where possible. Other adaptations may include the provision of formal or informal coaching or mentoring, regular breaks and access to flexitime, training and support for managers and colleagues, access to quiet spaces, flexibility regarding communication preferences, and clarification of any ‘unwritten’ organisational rules or office etiquette.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response. What is key is that the support provided is both personalised to suit the needs of the individual employee, and sustained over time. It is also important that a culture is fostered where it is easy for employees to disclose their condition, to be open to suggestions for adaptations that suit each individual’s needs, and to raise wider awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among employees.

Neurodiversity smart

Making reasonable adjustments is a cost-effective benefit to society; we also have a moral and ethical duty to act inclusively. We could view the pool of potential employees with neurodiverse conditions as untapped talent, rather than an employment burdenBritish Psychological Society, 2017

The UK government has also committed to halving the disability employment gap by 2020. In order to achieve this, the number of autistic people in employment will have to double. Employers also have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

However, becoming ‘neurodiversity smart’ is not just a legal or moral obligation – it is also essential if organisations are to harness the skills of this significant pool of untapped talent.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our article on ‘Girls with autism‘.

Opportunity or necessity… what’s fuelling the growth in self-employment?

iStock_650068Small_BusinessManInMeadow

With unemployment reaching its lowest level since 1975, it may seem like the state of the labour market has improved in recent years. However, a closer look at the statistics suggests that this is not necessarily the case.

The strong performance in the labour market in part reflects the growth in self-employment, which has been a distinguishing feature of the labour market’s recovery since the last recession.

Growth in self-employment

There were almost 750,000 more self-employed in the UK workforce at the end of 2014 than at the start of the global financial crisis in 2008, representing a high proportion of the total net growth in jobs over this period. Self-employment accounts for over 15% of those in work in the UK – 4.8 million of a workforce of around 32 million. Between March 2008 and March 2017, self-employment accounted for almost a third of total employment growth.

The significance of the contribution of self-employment is highlighted in a recent article published in Regional Studies, which notes that of the 920,000 net new jobs created between quarter 1 of 2008 and quarter 2 of 2014, 693,000 were in self-employment.

There has also been a rise in the share of female self-employed and those that work part-time, in addition to growth in a broader range of industries and occupations among the self-employed.

Recent ONS figures also show that the growth in self-employment between 2001 and 2016 has been driven mainly by those who have a degree (or equivalent), leading to the share of the self-employed with a degree or equivalent increasing from 19.3% in 2001 to 32.6% in 2016 as a share of total self-employed. As a share of total employment (self-employed and employed), the figures show that relatively highly-qualified individuals are becoming more concentrated in the self-employed.

Earnings growth?

The reasons for this growth has been the subject of much debate, particularly as research suggests many fail to earn a decent living. This recent analysis by the New Economics Foundation found that 54% of all self-employed people are not earning a decent living. It also found that the percentage of the labour force in ‘good jobs’ had decreased from 63% in 2011 to 61% in 2016, suggesting that the quality of jobs is perhaps declining.

Similarly, the ONS figures suggest that the self-employment labour market remains financially insecure for its workers. They show that the distribution of self-employed income appears centred around £240 a week, much lower than that for employees, which is centred around £400 a week.

And, according to a recent report from CIPD, their real incomes have fallen more since 2008 than those of employees.

Perhaps, then, the self-employment growth has been driven by necessity rather than choice due to a lack of opportunity in the full-time labour market.

However, the evidence suggests it is not this simple.

Despite the widening gap in earnings between the self-employed and employed, the self-employed continue to have higher levels of job satisfaction than employees. The ONS figures also indicate that self-employed workers were more likely to supplement their income from elsewhere.

This would suggest that choice probably plays a large part in self-employment.

‘Push’ or ‘pull’ effect

There has been much discussion over whether the growth in self-employment is predominantly a result of choice or necessity.

It is often seen as a sign of labour market weakness, with self-employment perceived as a ‘last resort’ where a regular job can’t be found. The evidence suggests that this motivation accounts for just a small proportion of the change, however, with most of the rise in self-employment appearing to be out of choice rather than necessity.

Indeed, the recent analysis in the Regional Studies article, which examined the extent to which self-employment was associated with local ‘push’ or ‘pull’ effects, found little or no suggestion of any net ‘recession-push’ effect on self-employment. It suggests that:

  • ‘pull’ factors are more significant in driving transitions into self-employment;
  • self-employed business ownership appears not to function as a significant alternative to unemployment where paid employment demand is weak; and
  • entrepreneurial activity prospers where local wages are higher and unemployment lower.

The uncertainty surrounding Brexit could also be having an effect as declining employer confidence has contributed to a growing number of short-term contracts – potentially making self-employment appear the better choice.

Final thoughts

As the CIPD report highlights, there are probably more opportunities for self-employment now than there were a decade ago. And the self-employed are more likely to value highly aspects of the work, such as its variety, and choice over their working hours and pay.

Across the range of job-related characteristics, it is shown that the self-employed are as satisfied or more satisfied with their working life than employees, resulting in higher levels of overall job satisfaction – a finding that is consistent both over time and from different data sources.

In a time where work-life balance is of increasing importance, it is perhaps no surprise that self-employment is the path of choice.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blogs on the gig economy, ‘the self-employment boom’ and ‘olderpreneurs‘.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Figuring it out: five issues emerging from the Scottish draft budget

The week before Christmas might not seem an ideal time to be mulling over the minutiae of economic forecasts and the implications of tax changes. But on Monday morning, the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) review of last week’s Scottish draft budget attracted a big turnout, and helped make sense of the numbers announced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay.

Here are some of the key issues to emerge from yesterday morning’s presentations.

  1. Growth: degrees of pessimism

Last month, the UK Office for Budget Responsibility revised downwards its growth forecast for the UK economy to less than 2%. The FAI, meanwhile, has forecast a slightly lower growth rate for the Scottish economy of between 1% and 1.5%. However, the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) is much more pessimistic, forecasting growth in the Scottish economy of less than 1% up to 2021. If the SFC’s forecast turns out to be accurate, this would mean the longest run of growth below 1% in Scotland for 60 years.

Dr Graeme Roy, director of the FAI, suggested that the SFC’s gloomy outlook is based on the view that the Scottish working-age population is projected to decline over the next decade. In addition, the SFC also believes that the slowdown in productivity, which has been a blight on the Scottish economy since the 2008 financial crisis, will continue.

  1. Income tax rises: reality v perception

Mr Mackay proposed big changes in Scotland’s tax system, with five income tax bands stretching from 19p to 46p. While these measures attracted the biggest headlines for the budget, the FAI believes that most people will see little meaningful impact in their overall tax bill (relative to income). Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, also suggested that the tax changes are unlikely to result in any significant behavioural changes in the way people pay tax in Scotland. And, as has been noted elsewhere, high taxation does not necessarily lead to unsuccessful economies.

However, as the FAI highlighted, perception is important, and if Scotland comes to be seen as the most highly taxed part of the UK, this could have serious implications for business start-ups and inward investment.

  1. Taxation: two systems, multiple implications

Charlotte Barbour also highlighted some of the implications of the tax changes in Scotland that haven’t featured widely in press coverage. How the changes interact with areas such as Gift Aid, pensions, the married couple’s tax allowance, Universal Credit and tax credits will need careful examination in the coming weeks.

  1. Public spending: additional resources, but constrained settlements

The FAI’s David Eiser noted that Mr Mackay was able to meet his government’s commitments to maintain real terms spending on the police and provide £180m for the Attainment Fund. He also announced an additional £400m resource spending on the NHS. But these settlements are constrained in the context of the Scottish Government’s pay policy,

Mr Mackay’s plan offers public sector workers such as nurses, firefighters and teachers earning less than £30,000 pounds a year a 3% pay rise, and those earning more than that a 2% rise. For the NHS alone, this could cost as much as £170m.

In addition, analysis published yesterday by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE) has estimated that, if local authorities were to match the Scottish Government’s pay policy, this would cost around £150m in 2018-19.

  1. The budget’s impact on poverty

If the growth forecasts are correct, even by 2022 real household incomes in Scotland will be below 2007 levels. Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director Scotland to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looked at the Scottish budget in the context of poverty, and suggested that three principles need to be addressed before the budget can be finalised: there are opportunities both to increase participation by minority groups in employment and to improve progression in low-wage sectors, such as hospitality and retail; energy efficiency is one important way of lowering household bills and improving housing quality in the private rented sector; and options such as topping up child tax credits and more generous Council Tax rebates are better at reducing poverty than cutting income tax.

Finalising the budget

As all of the speakers noted, the Scottish draft budget is not a done deal. The minority Scottish National Party government in the Scottish Parliament needs the support of at least one other party to ensure its measures are adopted. The most likely partner is the Scottish Green Party, which has indicated that the budget cannot pass as it stands, but could support the government if an additional £150m is committed to local government.

It took until February this year before the Scottish Government’s 2016 draft budget could be passed. Time will tell whether a budget announced shortly before Christmas 2017 can finally be agreed before Valentine’s Day 2018.

The complete collection of slides presented at the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Scottish budget review are available to download here.


Our blog post on the Fraser of Allander Institute’s review of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2017 Autumn Budget is available here.

Who’s caring for our young carers?

In less than two months time the UK will come together to recognise the 700,000 young people in the UK who provide care and support to families and friends, on Young Carers Awareness Day on 25 January.

Every day, children and young people provide physical and emotional care and support to their family members. Helping with household tasks, they care for young siblings, administer medication and deal with the emotional and physical stress of caring for a loved one with an illness. Estimates of the number of young carers living in the UK vary greatly. But Carers Trust suggests the number of young carers to be around 700,000 – that’s 1 in 12 secondary school-aged pupils. And those are only the ones we know about. Too many are falling through the net, going unnoticed and unidentified by services who can support them.

Attainment and employment

Earlier this year we joined in publicising the 2017 Young Carers Awareness Day, whose theme was “When I grow up”. The idea was to help people to understand how difficult it can be for young carers to realise their hopes and dreams for the future without the right support in place. A survey conducted by the Young Carers Trust found that over half (53%) of those surveyed were having problems in coping with schoolwork, with nearly 60% struggling to meet deadlines. Over 70% have had to take time out of school or learning specifically to care for a family member. A third admitted that they have to skip school most weeks.

With over 50% of young carers surveyed by The Children’s Society admitting that their caring responsibilities have caused them to miss days at school, and the burden of caring impacting on the ability of children to engage fully with school activities, it is unsurprising that young carers are twice as likely to be NEET as their peers. In addition, young carers in work find caring responsibilities have a disruptive effect on their workplace attendance, with understanding and flexible employers often being the difference between young adult carers remaining in work or becoming unemployed.

Mental health and wellbeing

Caring for a relative takes a massive toll on a young person. Recent reports published by Carers Trust and the Children & Young People’s Commissioner Scotland (CYPS) both show the significant mental health burden that caring places on a young person. Stress, isolation and anxiety that can come as a result of being a carer can have a significant impact on a child as they lose much of their contact with the outside world, become removed from social groups and miss out on opportunities to experience a “normal” childhood. Projects like Off the Record’s Young Carers Project in Croydon provide support and opportunities for respite for young carers. But it is clear that as child and adolescent mental health services  (CAMHS) are becoming increasingly stretched themselves, it is more important than ever to ensure that specialist services are also made available to young carers.

Partnerships working to provide support

Young carers often come into contact with multiple services. Education, social care, health and others all have an impact on young carers and their experiences and as a result can have a positive impact on their experiences too. Increasingly, services are being encouraged to cooperate in order to create a holistic support network for young carers, which encompasses every area of need they may have, and creates a seamless transition for young carers through all of their interactions with various services. Key coordinators and facilitators are vital in this role.

In the previously referenced report from CYPS, it was highlighted that many young carers felt positive about – and took pride in – their caring role, but that around two-thirds also said they felt “left out of things” at least some of the time. While they care for their loved ones, we need to make sure someone is caring for them.


Young Carers Awareness Day 2018 will take place on 25 January 2018.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

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