Both the Prime Minister and Chancellor are promoting 'good jobs' as integral to their vision of a successful future UK economy, post Brexit and net zero carbon. But we haven't heard much from them on good jobs being part of the Levelling Up agenda. Good jobs are not a pick ‘n’ mix option - they should be hardwired into the UK economy, explains Professor Chris Warhurst, from the University of Warwick's Institute for Employment Research.
As a recent report for the Wellbeing Alliance pointed out, poor quality jobs have direct and indirect costs for the Exchequer. Welfare payments, including tax credits, are a direct cost as a supplement to low wages. Higher wages would lower welfare dependency and provide more revenue for the Exchequer. The mental and physical health problems that arise from poor quality jobs incur indirect costs that fall upon the NHS and social care providers. In her 2008 review Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, Dame Carol Black estimates these costs to be as high as £100bn each year. We all pay the cost of poor-quality jobs.
What are good jobs
When the Prime Minster refers to good jobs he cites high pay and high skills, both of which are important components of job quality. Pay is particularly important to low wage workers and well-qualified workers rank being able to use their skills and abilities highly. However, there are other equally important features that can make a job good or bad. For example single parents value flexible working hours and no job can be said to be good if there is a high risk of mental or physical injury.
A few years ago the UK Government accepted the recommendation of the 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices to develop a set of measures for what Matthew Taylor called ‘good work’. The subsequent working group trawled through the research base and drew on developmental work conducted for the Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development to identify seven dimensions of good work. These dimensions are terms of employment; pay and benefits; job design and the nature of work; social support and cohesion; health, safety and psychosocial wellbeing; work–life balance; and voice and representation. Each dimension includes objective and subjective indicators. For example, pay and benefits focuses on the actual pay received by workers, which is an objective indicator. It also includes the perceived appropriateness of that pay, which is a subjective indicator.
The working group also suggested that the UK Government should explore developing minimum standards of job quality. Some standards, such as the minimum wage, already exist but the idea would be to extend such standards across all the key features of jobs to create a solid floor below which the quality of no job should fall.
Why good jobs matter
Setting minimum standards for job quality is a good thing in itself. There should be no Dickensian working conditions in the UK of the 21st Century, which is one of the richest and most economically developed countries on the planet. It aspires to be a global leader. None of its citizens should have to experience poor quality jobs. Matthew Taylor was right to argue that there is a moral case for raising job quality.
Raising standards of job quality would also be a practical benefit to all: workers, employers and government. For workers, there is a link between poor quality jobs and having mental and physical health problems – some very serious. Poor quality jobs can also mean that workers and their families cannot afford to participate fully in society, widening equality and opportunity gaps. For employers, good jobs have features that relate to higher productivity across many sectors. Research by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research shows a strong link between the nature of work, the existence of social support and workers having voice and representation in the workplace and higher productivity. The QuInnE research project revealed that good job quality can also boost firms’ capacity to innovative thereby increasing competitivity.
Putting good jobs on the Levelling Up agenda
This emphasis on having more good jobs is reflected in public opinion around the UK Government’s Levelling Up agenda. Whilst levelling up should include improved local or regional transport, education and public services, these improvements can only be part of the solution. Inequalities in employment also need to be addressed and opinion polls show that employment opportunities and outcomes matter to the public.
To reduce inequalities in employment, a recently-published ReWAGE policy brief argues that there needs to be an emphasis on providing better employment conditions as well as opportunities for progression for workers in lower skilled jobs. This approach would also help address differences for those workers at particular disadvantage because of a confluence of factors including race, gender, class, educational attainment and past de-industrialisation from which many regions have never recovered.
If the UK Government wants to address employment inequalities for people and places it needs to focus on both labour market supply and demand. On the supply-side, it should ensure that access to lifelong education and training opportunities exists. On the demand-side, it needs to provide guidance and support to employers to help them create inclusive good, or at least better, jobs. This dual approach – working to improve both supply and demand – is one championed now by the OECD in its recent shift away from its past advocating of only supply-side actions to boost local and regional economic development.
Having more good jobs throughout the UK is a means to reduce inequalities between regions and people. It would be a strategy that ‘lifts all boats’ - not just those in some regions and for some workers. The UK Government should not just include employment in how it thinks about levelling up, it should also set a target for improving jobs for people and places that have weak job quality. Good jobs for all will benefit workers, employers and the UK as a whole.
26 November 2021
Professor Chris Warhurst is an internationally recognised expert on job quality, skills and aesthetic labour. He is motivated by wanting to see better scientific and policymaker understanding of work and employment.
He is Co-Chair of the ERSC-funded Renewing Work Advisory Group of Experts (ReWAGE) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. He is a thematic lead at Warwick's interdisciplinary Productivity & the Futures of Work Global Research Priority
ReWAGE is an independent expert advisory group co-chaired by Warwick and Leeds Universities and which focuses on the recovery and renewal of work and employment in the UK as it tackles the economic impact of Covid-19. A ReWAGE evidence paper will be published in early 2022 on the benefits of improved job quality.
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