Low Skill Jobs Hit Hardest
One of the most striking features of the recent recession / economic downturn is that total employment hasn’t been affected anything like as much as forecasters expected. Although GDP is down and household names like Woolworths, MFI, Bosch, Hotpoint and Hoover have gone from Wales, employment in Wales has contracted by around 3% since the recession began to hit jobs in June 2008. Although we can ill-afford that 3% decline given its pre-existing problems of a shortage of jobs, it’s hardly the stuff of headlines.
This relatively good news hides some huge differences in how people in different kinds of jobs have been affected. Top jobs – managers, professionals and associate professionals have been unscathed by the recession. Indeed their ranks have continued to grow despite the conditions. Caring, leisure and service jobs have also continued to grow, presumably as the public sector and the spending power of those top managers have helped to maintain demand for such roles.
It’s the semi-skilled and unskilled jobs that have taken the biggest hit, with the worst affected being process, plant and machine operatives who’ve seen more than 1 in 5 of their jobs (20%) vanish. Admin jobs and elementary jobs have also shrunk, although to a much lesser extent, about 5%. Skilled trades, always vulnerable to a recession because of their dominance by the construction industry, are down by 8%.
There’s a big conundrum here. People in low skilled jobs have been hardest hit by the recession, yet there is little sign of any growth in other low skilled jobs in which they might find work. The 24,000 people that were operatives are unlikely to find other operative work, nor are they likely to have much luck in elementary occupations like cleaning. At best they might be able to switch to caring or service roles, but they’re almost certainly not going to make it in the growth occupations – they simply don’t have the skills or qualifications. They end up, instead, in a cycle of more low-skill jobs that either don’t last or don’t suit.
The Welsh Government’s Jobs Growth Wales Fund is useful but it’s a drop in the ocean compared with the challenges facing unskilled people. The emphasis in the UK Government’s Work Programme is ‘work first’ – i.e. find unemployed people a job, then address skills issues. But with the contraction of low skilled work on this scale, this seems to me like trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot.
It’s pretty clear that the long-term way forward is to ensure more people have the skills and qualifications they need to enter higher-skill jobs. Adult education and training are critical to this agenda – but not any old vague courses but ones which have a defined pathway that lead to job-specific qualifications. All fine, but look around, and the opportunities for adults to start on the route to nursing, accountancy, legal executive or pharmacy technician, to name a random few, are like hen’s teeth.
It might be expensive, but surely not as costly as the price of long-term unemployment. What is clear is that keeping people on the dole, or putting them on a merry-go-round of short-term, low skill jobs is no solution either. How good it would be to see some Welsh Government action on this.
Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation
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