What if Skills are not the Answer to Low Pay?

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Ewart Keep
KeepEJ@cardiff.ac.uk
01684 561484

The following press notice is issued by the Economic and Social Research Council's Research Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance based at Oxford and Cardiff Universities. Please address any enquiries to the contact tel nos/addresses on the notice. Info on SKOPE can be seen on the organisation's web site: www.skope.ox.ac.uk. 

What if skills are not the answer to low pay?

A new research paper by Ewart Keep and Susan James for the ESRC SKOPE argues that a fundamental cause of low pay and rotten jobs has been policy misdiagnose and interventions that inject more workers supplied with lower level qualifications into the labour pool.

The paper looks across a raft of government policies that were intended to ensure that those at the lower end of the labour market invest in their human capital by re-engaging with learning but which, Keep and James argue, operate in industries and in a labour market that actually provide powerful reasons why many individuals and employers find little incentive to learn or promote learning. Among the factors militating against skill enhancement among lower paid workers are narrow job tasks and equivalent vocational qualifications often with little substantive learning, limited labour market regulation, poor returns for acquiring a lower level qualification and limited opportunities for progression.

Keep and James note the ‘employer’ view from the CBI that ‘labour market flexibility will remain our real competitive advantage’ but say that over-riding this is a problem of limited employer demand for skill, over-qualification and poor skills utilisation. In the face of this, the problems of low pay and dependence on benefits will be hard to solve by public policy interventions based on traditional skill supply models.

This is the context in which Keep and James emphasise the importance of rebalancing the economy and argue that, in reality, it is only the prospect of better more demanding jobs in organisations, private and public, that seek to develop their workforces through tailored training programmes that stands a chance of incentivising those at the bottom of the labour market to learn. They suggest that the shock of public spending cuts and findings from pilot initiatives by the Scottish government might cause some constructive re-imagining of what policy might do to help those in low paid dead end jobs.

Notes for Editors: SKOPE Research Paper No 94 ‘What Incentives to Learn at the Bottom End of the Labour Market has been written by Professor Ewart Keep, Cardiff University and Deputy Director of SKOPE and Susan James, University of Oxford and SKOPE.

The paper is published on SKOPE’s web site: www.skope.ox.ac.uk and is available from the SKOPE Secretary, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII Avenue, Cardiff CF10 3WT.

For further information contact: Ewart Keep, tel 01684 561484 and e-mail KeepEJ@cardiff.ac.uk; Ken Mayhew, SKOPE Director, tel (0)1865 276434 and e-mail ken.mayhew@pmb.ox.ac; and John Stevens, press coordinator and associate fellow, tel (0)1732 362895 and e-mail john.r.stevens@talk21.com