Monday, January 28, 2008


There is a lot I like about the new ideas to boost people's skills, and getting companies like MacDonalds to offer skills training which leads to nationally accredited qualifications is a good idea, which will make sure that the skills that its employees learn are more likely to be acknowledged and valued - a good example of this can be seen here.

The idea that the biggest barrier to full employment is a lack of skills, rather than a lack of jobs or any other barriers, is, however, misleading. Consider, for example:

*Four out of five lone parents have been in work at some point in the last three years. But only 57% are currently employed. So for more than 1 in 5 lone parents, the problem is not getting a job, but keeping it. It's hard to see how improving their skills could help with that. Most leave their jobs because they can't combine it with looking after their kids.

*Most new jobs aren't, in fact, high paid ones using technical computer skills (though there are more of them than ever before, and by 2020 it is estimated that 21% of all jobs will be high skilled). The really big growth has been in low paid jobs such as cleaners, childcare workers, nursery nurses, teaching assistants and care assistants, and this is set to continue up until the point where the Tories win an election, slash public spending and bring back mass unemployment. This produces what Jon Cruddas calls the 'hour glass economy' - lots of new high paid jobs, lots of new low paid jobs, with a squeeze on the ones in the middle. There is definitely a role for increased investment in skills and qualifications particularly amongst people working with children - this works very well in Scandinavia. But it isn't currently a lack of skills preventing people from getting these jobs.

*In Wales, there are more families living in poverty where at least one member of the family is working than in workless households. The other half of the social contract should be that greater skills mean higher wages, but wages aren't high enough for millions of workers to keep them out of poverty. Indeed, a greater supply of skilled workers has kept wage increases down, as employers have been able to pay wages which support a single person sharing a room with three others, rather than a wage high enough for someone who has a family to look after.

It is beneficial for people to be able to develop their skills, and in so far as these reforms help to make that possible, they are all to the good. But they need to go alongside opportunities to work flexibly - being able to combine work with caring responsibilities (and get childcare and respite care when it is needed) and higher wages for low paid workers, with employers competing for the best qualified workers, rather than the cheapest.

By focusing on only the responsibilities of individuals to make themselves appealing to employers, Brown risks alienating the very people whose participation is key to making this work. Unless he gets the strong support of unskilled workers at the next election by showing that he understands and values their experience of what is needed to make it possible to find work, it will be Brown and his colleagues looking for a bit of skills training as they have to find new jobs. Employers and government have a bigger role to play in tackling unemployment than just making it easier to acquire diplomas.


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