Category Archives: The Employment Relationship

The productivity crisis and the role of trade unions: partnership, productivity and skills in the UK

Bert Clough CERIC

Bert Clough, Visiting Professor, CERIC

As the Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, has stated “productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it is almost everything”. A nation’s ability to improve its standard of living depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its hourly output per worker. That is why increasing productivity should be as important for trade unions as securing the fairer distribution of economic returns of GDP. But productivity has virtually flatlined since the financial crisis in 2008/9. Even more concerning is that the UK has the widest productivity gap with the G7 countries average since the mid-1990s. The General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, has warned that the “productivity headache is a self-inflicted wound” resulting from years of cuts and low public investment. The TUC believes that enhanced productivity can only be achieved in investment and embedded in a culture of positive labour relations; with the workforce and their employers becoming “productivity partners”. This requires unions to adopt strategies based on integrative, not just distributive, bargaining.

Can such rhetoric about such social partnership arrangements over productivity be made reality? In 2000, as part of his Productivity Initiative, Gordon Brown asked the TUC and CBI to join forces to identify key priorities and joint recommendations to the Treasury on how to enhance productivity.  One key driver that was identified was that of skills. In a recent research paper, I have sought to assess the effectiveness of the skills strand of the initiative. As part of the Chancellor’s strategy to close the wide productivity gap with UK major competitors by 2010, the aim was for young people and adults to have knowledge and skills that matched the best in the world.

A fragile social partnership over skills had existed during the era of neo-corporatism in the 1970s. But this was ended by the Thatcher government, which abolished tripartite institutions such as the Manpower Services Commission and most of the industry training boards. New Labour was not however about devolving decisions over skills formation to social partners and restoring neo-corporate institutions. Nor was the “Third Way” about reintroducing training levies or establishing statutory collective bargaining over training. The Productivity Initiative was thus constrained by what has been described as a “social-democratic variant of labour market neo-liberalism”. Another constraint was the divergent approaches of the social partners to workforce development. Whereas the TUC has traditionally had a more expansive, employment-focussed approach that supported state intervention, the CBI has had a restrictive employer-focussed approach that cleaved to voluntarism. As a result, the remit of the skills working group under the Productivity Initiative (which was chaired by the then TUC General Secretary – John Monks) was narrow. The remit confined itself to four priorities which conveniently reflected the Government’s vocational education and training (VET) strategy:

  1. increasing the proportion of the adult workforce qualified to Level 2;
  2. tackling the basic skills problems of individuals;
  3. increasing the take-up of Investors in People by small organisations;
  4. improving VET delivery.

The major deficiencies in the exercise was that it was that it confined itself to the supply side as opposed to the demand side. It did not address the key skills components that help drive productivity – their utilisation and higher levels of training such as management and apprentice training which give high economic returns. These were policy areas that the CBI regarded as being subject to employer prerogative and therefore off a social partnership agenda.

The CBI wanted carrots but no sticks. The TUC wanted sticks but realised that it could only realistically press for individual entitlements to training. The working group did recommend carrots for employers to train. This took the form of employer tax credits to incentivise companies to train up to level 2 and basic skills and for small companies to commit to the Investors in People (IiP) standard. The Treasury however favoured a more targeted approach; introducing state subsidies to employers training workers to recognised qualifications through the Employer Training Pilots (ETP) (later universalised as Train to Gain). Direct subsidies were also given to small companies to prepare for IiP accreditation, through the Small Firms Initiative.

Trade unions (with the enhanced capacity provided by the Union Learning Fund and trained union learning reps) helped ETP to target workers with low or no qualifications. The union view was that helping their members to obtain basic skills and Level 2 qualifications could minimise social exclusion and lead to possible progression to higher levels, with ultimately higher returns.  Although the primary objective of ETP and its successor Train to Gain was to increase employer demand for workforce training, the incidence of deadweight and substitution indicated that such an objective had not been substantially met and provided the Coalition Government with the excuse to end the scheme.

New Labour had adopted a social-democratic variant of a neo-liberalist approach to interventions in the labour market. The weakness of this approach was that it left the vast bulk of skills policy and practice outside the industrial relations system. This approach together with the absence of robust social partnership institutions to oversee VET from the 1980s to the present day has enabled successive governments to adopt a top- down approach. It has resulted in the churning of supply-side policy initiatives, chasing national qualification targets, which have had little effect on stimulating employer demand or engaging with the long tail of SME “productivity laggards”.

A key factor in enhancing productivity is the utilisation of skills, but that was virtually ignored by the Labour Government and subsequent governments.  A recent government Foresight report “The Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning” has found however that the UK is the second lowest nation in the EU in utilising skills. Moving towards the levels of skills utilisation seen in Germany and France could boost productivity by as much as £5.5 bn.

The daunting challenge facing unions is how to build their capacity to engage with employers on measures to increase productivity through high involvement work practices and to reap the ensuing benefits through collective bargaining over skills. The lessons learnt from New Labour’s Productivity Initiative was that peak-level social partnership within a voluntary system is unable to deliver such objectives. This has been further limited by a significant decline in union learning capacity, as a result of government austerity measures and the economic downturn since 2010.

So, what is required are robust social partnership institutions with devolved regulatory powers. Their objective should be to raise productivity through assisting employers to adopt high performance and high involvement work practices. This would include promoting high utilisation of skills and ensuring a more equal distribution of training opportunities throughout the workforce. This fundamental change will not come about through yet another central government “quick-fix” initiative from above. It needs to come from below and be owned by both employers and unions.

Developing such a progressive culture could best begin in unionised workplaces. This, however, requires a step change for unions:  moving from conflict to cooperation as their main new source of influence. It does require, however, a rebalancing of power between unions and employers. Ensuring that union reps are full partners requires two measures. Firstly, collective bargaining over training and work organisation must become an integral part of union recognition.  Secondly, there needs to be capacity -building initiatives (at possibly sector or Local Enterprise Partnership level) to provide unions as well as employers with the tools to drive this productivity partnership agenda forward. The long-term objective would be more high- performance and high -involvement workplaces, with employees as well as employers sharing the benefits from the increased productivity.

But does the present government’s industrial strategy address this fundamental challenge? It certainly sets out new initiatives such as a National Retraining Scheme and government /industry partnerships to increase productivity in key sectors. In his November Budget, the Chancellor even confirmed that the government would enter into a formal skills partnership with the TUC and CBI, to develop the scheme. The aim of the partnership is to help set the strategic priorities for the scheme and oversee its implementation, working with new Skills Advisory Panels to ensure that local economies’ needs are reflected. But it must not be just a top-down approach.

The litmus test will be how effective the partnership is in persuading the long tail of productivity laggards to increase the utilisation of the skills of their workforce. This requires recognition of the potential of trade unions at sectoral and company level to form productivity partnerships with employers.  This is the key to develop high-performance and high-involvement workplaces, where employees are rewarded for their increased productivity. The short-comings of the 2001 Productivity Initiative must be avoided. History must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Advertisements

The ‘Made Smarter’ review: a road to utopia or dystopia in negotiating the future of skills, apprenticeships and work?

By Maisie Roberts, CERIC Postgraduate Researcher

pandora's box

Junge, A. 2005. Pandora’s Box #1: Found Toolbox with Neon

The future of work: dystopia or utopia?

The recent industry-led independent Made Smarter review chaired by Professor Jurgen Maier, CEO of Siemens, provides a future vision of the UK’s industrial landscape in terms of advancing the remit of digital technology. Training and upskilling are central components of achieving a utopian future vision. However, the future of work seems to hinge on Maier’s warning (2017: 11):

“Get it wrong, and we risk further de-industrialising our economy, and becoming ever more reliant on imports. Get it right, and we will have found the key to rebalancing and strengthening our economy, creating many new, exciting, and well-paid jobs, and leading a renaissance for the UK as a true nation of creators and makers.”

From this perspective, the future of work remains a highly contested point of discussion, centred on two extremes, which either seem to epitomise a utopian land of promise or a scaremongering nightmarish dystopia. Indeed, when we think of the future of work we conjure up rather dystopian images of the superiority of artificial intelligence-driven robots who have the power and skill to take over the whole spectrum of work, leaving us without any hope of meaningful work. Precarious employment contracts, disposable workforces, intensified working hours and minimal employment rights are already a sad reality. Beyond this the underworld of Silicon Valley casts an unsettling shadow over society where our digital footprints are tracked, extradited and sold to feed a dystopian-like machine. Has Pandora’s box been opened with no return? And what’s the alternative?

 Trouble in utopia?  Skills and the fourth industrial revolution

 Currently, technology, innovation and digitalisation are key incentives for national economies and skills and training are viewed as essential in achieving aptitude in this area. Economies are revising their technologies and capabilities in line with this so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

The first revolution used water and steam to power production whilst the second relied on electric power for mass production. The third drew on information technology to create automated production lines. The fourth builds on the foundations of the third, but merges physical, digital and biological realms to create new technologies. Amongst other emerging phenomena this includes the rise of big data and the Internet of Things, where cyber-physical systems communicate and exchange data with each other and with humans in real-time.

The process of creating a commodity has therefore changed from one where manual work would physically create a product from raw materials to one where technological and information-led networks shape new “modes of development” in an increasingly globalised context (Castells, 1996). This presents the question whether the nature of skill is changing under this new guise of capitalism underpinned by the “information age”.

This might mean that new skills are needed to navigate between raw materials and new technology, data and software, changing existing job structures as well as creating new jobs altogether. Here, skill is therefore essential to facilitate technological advancement. Indeed the World Economic Forum (2016) calls for complex problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking and teamwork amongst other skills, which are viewed as essential in navigating us into a utopian future of the fourth industrial revolution.

Conversely, there could be a move to the growing but rather dystopian phenomena of a so-called ‘lights out’ methodology. Under this approach, human labour becomes obsolete as factories become solely operated via automation with the ‘lights out’ to save on production costs, increase profit margins and respond to increased customer demand. Frey and Osbourne’s (2013) infamous paper, which estimates that 47% of all US employment is susceptible to computerisation certainly plays to this analogy.

Uncertainty ahead: The case of Germany and England

The fourth industrial revolution still remains very much a future vision, and one, which is not yet fully realised. How skills strategy integrates into the future vision of work remains uncertain as demonstrated by Germany and England.

Germany

The ‘dual’ German apprenticeship system adopts a corporatist and coordinated approach, in which both firms and vocational schools provide highly structured training (Bosch, 2010). Apprenticeships are protected from market forces in an almost utopian enclave where unions, chambers, employers and the state work collectively and pro-actively together to regulate the future path of the system.

Although Germany seems to epitomise a perfect apprenticeship system, it, too, is facing significant challenges. Previously up to 75% of young people would typically undertake an apprenticeship (Grugulis, 2007) but since 2013 university starts has overtaken apprenticeship starts and this number is rising (BMBF, 2016). Higher education is becoming a more popular option, much like the UK, with the promise of a free university education and higher graduate wages a key incentive for this choice.

Equally, the entire context and character of Germany’s labour market has changed too with the implementation of the Hartz reforms over 10 years ago, which brought in temporary, agency or so-called ‘mini’ jobs as well as cuts in unemployment welfare assistance. The traditional purpose of an apprenticeship was to provide comprehensive training to catapult an individual into a secure and permanent occupation for life. Yet the evolving fragmentation of Germany’s labour market could undermine the stability, time and effort required to develop well- defined routes to employment.

Germany’s pro-active strategy of “re-imagining work” through its “Work 4.0” concept highlighted in its initial green paper (2015), followed up by its white paper (2017) aims to tackle some of these issues. The reports highlight the need for occupational profiles to be adapted to meet changing skill demands, increasing continuing vocational training, more support for SMEs to develop training and a monitoring system to forecast future demand of skilled labour. The decreasing labour supply of young people is mentioned and as such the report calls for the opening up of skilled labour to more migrants, low-skilled workers, women, older people and disabled people. However, the reports do not seem to directly address the growing prevalence of higher education, which many have argued is leading to growing inequality and a reduction of firms participating (Thelen and Busemeyer, 2012). The future of apprenticeships therefore remains somewhat ambiguous in the Work 4.0 agenda.

England

England’s system is voluntarist and employer-led, with employers solely designing, regulating and managing the system. England lacks the collective ethos and stability of the German system. The English system is also prone to continuous political upheaval, particularly since the Thatcher years where participation in apprenticeships drastically declined (Gospel, 1995).

An apprenticeship levy was introduced in April this year with the aim to increase apprenticeship participation to 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. The levy targets employers with a pay bill over £3million, affecting 2% of firms. However, recent reports highlight that since the levy apprenticeship starts have decreased by 59% (BBC, 2017). Equally, only half of the eligible levy firms have actually registered to reclaim levy funds (CIPD, 2017). This suggests that many firms are disregarding the levy as a tax instead of a social responsibility to invest in apprenticeships. Hence, although the levy has good intentions, perhaps the inherently market-led nature of England’s economy deters employers from investing in the costs and time needed to create high quality apprenticeships.

The recent industrial strategy aims to reform the UK’s technical education system to make it more internationally competitive, invest £406m in STEM skills and create a new National Retraining Scheme to allow people reskill in the labour market. Much like the recent Made Smarter review, training and skills exemplify the road to utopia in the policy discourse. However, UK’s intermediate skills ranking is projected to stand at only 28th of 33 OECD countries by 2020 (UKCES, 2015) and its productivity figures were recently downgraded from the predicted 2% growth for this year down to 1.5%, soon to be followed by 1.3% in 2019 (OBR, 2017), the same rate as during financial crisis.

The Made Smarter review focuses in on these challenges. Firstly, it argues that lack of effective national leadership and cross-sector collaboration has failed to achieve a coherent strategy of industrial digitalisation. Secondly, poor productivity, limited business support, cybersecurity threats and significant skills shortages due to the fragmented apprenticeship system leads to poor levels of adoption of the digitalisation agenda, particularly among SMEs. Finally, the UK’s infrastructure does not support the scaling-up of technology to support companies, meaning that innovation is under-leveraged. As such, the need for training is paramount in the report, which calls for the upskilling of a million industrial workers. Yet the current employer-led approach to apprenticeships in England, where the nature of the market dictates its future, contrasts to this utopian image.

Summing up

 Utopia, true to its definition as both a no-place and a good place, is a useful framing device, which helps us consider what we might want for ourselves in our future society. The Made Smarter review offers us two very different future outcomes, one with new, exciting and well-paid jobs, creating a society of creators and makers, or, an alternative route towards a de-industrialised, stagnant and import-reliant society. Juergen Maier clearly acknowledges that the UK faces a number of challenges in creating his future vision of industry and employment, including poor productivity and infrastructure. Lack of coordination, leadership and collaboration amongst businesses, academia and other institutions are also listed as central concerns.  Interestingly, Germany’s “re-imagining work” white paper actively engaged in a public dialogue and called upon workers, businesses, unions and other institutions to help contribute to the future vision of work in partnership together. This helped to ease the mystery behind the notion of digitalisation and its implications on work, whilst providing a voice for all in navigating towards a collective vision of the future world of work.

From this perspective, we need to ask what skills and work we really value in society today. Apprenticeships, training and skills development can clearly provide increased national productivity, innovation and meaningful job creation if implemented correctly (Finegold and Soskice, 1989). Yet apprenticeships are too often considered as a magical tool to swiftly solve all of society’s problems, such as youth unemployment, deepening skills gaps and productivity slumps to name a few (Keep and Mayhew, 2010), without much consideration of what is actually needed to secure these essentially utopian benefits. If we truly admire the inherent value of skills and apprenticeships as a means to meaningful and productive employment for society, more weight, investment, regulation and prestige needs to be placed on them.

References

BBC. 2017. Apprenticeship numbers fall by 59% after levy imposed. [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42092171

BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung). 2016. Report on Vocational Education and Training 2016. [Online]. [No Place]: Federal Ministry of Education and Research. [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from: https://www.bmbf.de/pub/Berufsbildungsbericht_2016_eng.pdf

Castells, M. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

CIPD. 2017. Half of Eligible businesses register to reclaim apprenticeship levy funds. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:  http://www2.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2017/10/09/half-of-eligible-businesses-register-to-reclaim-apprenticeship-levy-funds.aspx

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 2017. Made Smarter. Review 2017. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. London: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/655570/20171027_MadeSmarter_FINAL_DIGITAL.pdf

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 2017. Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. London: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/664563/industrial-strategy-white-paper-web-ready-version.pdf

Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. 2017. Re-Imagining Work, White paper, Work 4.0. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Berlin: Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. Available from: http://www.bmas.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/EN/PDF-Publikationen/a883-white-paper.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=3

Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. 2015. Re-Imagining Work, Green paper, Work 4.0. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Berlin: Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. Available from: http://www.bmas.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/DE/PDF-Publikationen/arbeiten-4-0-green-paper.pdf;jsessionid=FFFC52E6F5D81905E8B5D4EE90F3E69C?__blob=publicationFile&v=2

Finegold, D. and Soskice, D. 1988. The Failure of Training in Britain: Analysis and Prescription, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 4(3), pp. 21-53.

Frey, C, B. and Osbourne, M. 2013. The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, pp. 254-280

Gospel, H. 1995. The Decline of Apprenticeship Training in Britain, Industrial Relations Journal, 26(1), pp. 32-44.

Grugulis, I. 2007. Skills, Training and Human Resource Development: A Critical Text. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Junge, A. 2005. Pandora’s Box #1: Found Toolbox with Neon [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:  http://www.jungeart.com/assemb/photo_display.php?start=4

Keep, E, and Mayhew, K. 2010. Moving beyond skills as a social and economic panacea, Work, Employment and Society, 24(3), pp. 565-577.

OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility). 2017. Economic Fiscal Outlook. [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from: http://cdn.budgetresponsibility.org.uk/Nov2017EFOwebversion-2.pdf

Thelen, K. and Busemeyer, M. 2012. Institutional Change in German Vocational Training: From Collectivism toward Segmentalism. In: Busemeyer, M. and Trampusch, C, eds. The Political Economy of Collective Skill Formation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 68-100.

UKCES. 2015. UK Skills Levels and International Competitiveness 2014. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470017/skill_levels_2014.pdf

World Economic Forum, 2016. The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/

 

 

 

Report launch: how do we engage more employers in employability and skills programmes?

Jo IngoldDr Jo Ingold, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy, CERIC, Leeds University Business School.

3 December 2017, at an event in Westminster for policymakers, practitioners and academics, we’ll be launching our final report from a four-year ESRC-funded research project about employer engagement in employability and skills programmes.

Employers are critical to the success of employment activation and employability programmes, yet there’s been surprisingly little research about employers’ perspectives on them. In the first phase of our research, we surveyed over 1,500 employers in the UK and Denmark. In the second phase, we undertook more than 100 in-depth interviews with employers and providers delivering employability and skills programmes in both countries, to provide a ‘two-sided’ perspective on employer engagement.

Employers’ perspectives on employability programmes

Employers were generally positive about employing unemployed candidates, but less so about employability programmes, particularly in the UK. A critical difference between the countries was that, while every Danish employer we interviewed had taken part in at least one programme (and often more), among UK employers participation was more sporadic. UK employers were most familiar with apprenticeships above other provision. A key reason for not engaging in programmes was that employers thought they were inappropriate to their needs. They were put off by the large number of programmes and providers, lacked knowledge about them and about how to access programmes, and were unsure about their value. The most popular reasons for engaging were to access an alternative recruitment channel, to develop talent and to ‘give people a chance’.

Critically, employers felt that the benefit conditionality system and employability programmes themselves could ‘tarnish’ candidates. Employers were particularly dissatisfied about receiving large numbers of job applications as a result of conditionality and entitlement conditions. The lack of a tailored service from providers could also result in employers being sent candidates who were of ‘poor quality’, unsuitable, or ill-prepared.

Employers were generally positive about employing disabled people, although only a small number of UK employers had done so, and not necessarily through employability programmes. In Denmark the Flexjobs scheme for disabled people (offering subsidized jobs under special conditions, in-work support and reduced working hours) was popular with employers. Importantly, in both countries very few employers had made changes to their recruitment and selection processes to encourage candidates from disadvantaged groups, despite recognising the shortcomings of the standard application and interview method.

Our survey data found two distinct groups of employers in terms of engagement in employability and skills programmes. Firstly, those who were ‘instrumentally engaged’ on an ad hoc basis in specific initiatives but not that ‘committed’ to them. Secondly, those who were ‘relationally engaged’ and were more committed and involved in a broader range of programmes on a repeated and sustained basis. This distinction was supported by the interview data. The survey and interview data showed that relational engagement was higher in Denmark than the UK. Crucially, UK employers did not feel that employability programmes were designed with their needs in mind and, compared with Danish employers, had very low trust in public policies.

Providers’ perspectives

The data from providers in both countries showed striking similarities with the employer data, in terms of barriers to engagement and reasons for engaging, as well as in their perspectives about what relational (or in-depth) employer engagement meant. However, the fact that UK employers had less ‘institutional’ trust in government policy and programmes critically left more ‘gaps’ to be filled by providers. They tended to achieve this through the development of ‘inter-personal’ relationships with employers, based on trust. So these relationships were largely between individuals from provider organisations and from businesses, rather than based on relations between organisations. But, although these relationships were critical to employer engagement, they were also fragile and trust could be easily lost. This wasn’t helped by changes to programmes, regulations and contracts in localities.

UK providers also expressed concern about employers’ fluctuating demands for labour, which were difficult to meet. Additionally, there was a gap between employer demands and the individuals that providers’ held on their caseloads, who were possible candidates for vacancies. Providers felt that this gap could not be filled by programmes in their current form. One way of providing a good ‘offer’ to employers was by being able to provide a ‘spectrum’ of services (ranging from pre-employment training to in-work support and training). But providers could only really do this successfully if they’d won a range of employment and skills contracts (from different government departments), or merged with or acquired organisations that had. Alternatively, providing a range of services to employers required working with other organisations, sometimes competitors (what is often referred to as ‘co-opetition’).

This research reveals the extremely fragmented landscape of employment and skills provision in the UK, as well as the remoteness of employers from them (notably the situation was slightly different in Scotland, where these policies are devolved responsibilities). The current formulation of employment and skills policy assumes that employers will engage and will provide opportunities for unemployed individuals. But this research (and the previous research we conducted about the UK Work Programme) suggest that employers are not beating the door down to take part in these programmes, despite them being a potential avenue for increasing workforce diversity. If the government wants to seriously address labour market disadvantage and in particular to halve the disability employment gap, an urgent re-think is needed about the current direction of policy.

Policy recommendations

  • In their current form, programmes are not working effectively for employers. Employers still lack knowledge about programmes, don’t recognise their potential benefits and consider them inappropriate to their needs.
  • A smaller number of programmes, with more continuity and stability but less complexity and fragmentation would make it easier for employers to engage.
  • Changes need to be urgently made to avoid employers receiving large numbers of job applications from benefit claimants in order to fulfil conditionality requirements, as this is damaging to employers’ views of initiatives. A critical aspect of this is better targeting of applications to employers.
  • Devolution is an important opportunity to improve employer engagement in the design and implementation of initiatives and to devise programmes that are responsive to local needs.
  • Merging different government departmental funding streams for employability and skills provision would be helpful, especially as the government looks to replacement European Social Fund provision.
  • More employers need to be equipped with information about ways to make their recruitment and selection processes more inclusive and effective.
  • To maximise resources and to provide a better service to employers, we need more mechanisms for sharing evidence-based good practice across different providers, programmes, cohorts and areas, which currently the competitive contracting frameworks mitigate against.

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and followed on from ‘Seedcorn’ research funded by CERIC and Leeds University Business School. More information about the research can be found here.

 

Alexandra Seehaus (Visiting Fellow, CERIC) reviews Oliver Nachtwey’s book, currently only available in German.

Alex Seehaus

Alex Seehaus, Visiting Fellow, CERIC

Oliver Nachtwey’s “The descent society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age”

Running up a downwards escalator

The election results to the German Parliament on Sunday 24th made a far right nationalist party (Alternative für Deutschland “Alternative for Germany” ) the third biggest party in the Lower House of Parliament. While among the electorate there are nationalist, racists, and neo-nazis, a huge number of people declared they voted for them out of protest against the existing government. Many of those engaging in a protest vote were members of the middle classes with middle incomes, who are afraid to lose their status and class position, due to the increase of migrants and refugees and an increased insecurity. To place this in context and understand some of this background to this turn of events, it is worthwhile to read Oliver Nachtwey’s book which explores changed mobility patterns in German society.

Oliver Nachtwey has offered a staggering account of this phenomenon in Germany, which has made it into the top selling lists of the online bookshop Amazon Germany and was recently awarded with the Hans-Matthöfer-prize for heterodox economic and sociological writing.

Nachtwey sees the social promise that has kept the German society together over the last seventy years as lost. There is no longer an ‘ascent society’ in Germany, but it has instead been replaced by one of descent. The divide between rich and poor has increased and the dynamics of social mobility have changed, to the detriment of those at the bottom. Instead of climbing up the ladder to the top, people are now making a constant effort in order not to descend, simply to hold their position. Given the fact that a majority of the public still seems persuaded by the idea of meritocracy and the belief in collective upward mobility, such developments contradict common expectations. As hard work and ongoing growth were supposed to guarantee constant status improvement, it’s mere absence causes disappointment for employees and is perceived as social descent.
Descent is a problem for society as a whole. It affects not only those whose situation is getting worse, but also causes stagnation and widespread fear. According to Nachtwey such situation is characterised by polarisation and precarity, resulting in an erosion of social integration. What he sees arising in its place is a new social question about the emergence of ‘working poor’ and unequal distribution of wealth and chances for social mobility, which threatens democracy and provokes protest.

The book not only offers a precise analysis of social inequality and struggles within democratic capitalism. Its intellectual strength lies in the way in which aspects – which often remain separate – are brought together. This includes observations on post-democracy, findings on underclasses and precarious working conditions, pressure on middle classes, as well as thesis on stagnating capitalism and low growth expectations.
Nachtwey’s analysis builds on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who depicts the upward mobility in the prospering welfare state of post-war Germany as collective elevator effect. According to Nachtwey, this metaphor has become obsolete, as people no longer move up together. The ‘steady ascent’ has ended with the deterioration of standard employment, flexibilisation, and the dismantling of social security, which went hand-in-hand with former life structures, careers and vocational paths. Instead, the collective and individual dimensions of ascent and descent have come apart. In Nachtwey’s metaphor everyone stands by oneself on the escalator stairs. Those on the top are still moving up, but for a big number of people in the middle and the bottom the direction has changed. They instead attempt to run up a descending escalator. While such an image might be considered somewhat bold, since empirical data shows that individual descent has not become a mass phenomenon and ascent is still possible, it captures the increasing distance between top and bottom as well as the important trend of precarisation collectively faced by a growing number of employees in Germany.

According to Nachtwey, people in Germany have lost trust in the notion of stability. Despite the fact that lower classes, those with less education, older as well as young people, and those with migrant status, struggle in the current labour market situation, middle class people also feel threatened by the potential and actual loss of jobs and social status. The erosion of social integration is therefore not only caused by actual descent, but also collective fear of it, which impedes solidarity. Whether concerning the conflict between employees and unemployed, permanent and temporary staff; residents and migrants; or discrimination between age groups, society has become polarised. And unfortunately this is what we see coming true with the recent elections.

Nachtwey is aware of the potential resentments and reactionary tendencies within the politics and movements addressing the deteriorating situation of the working population, such as those supporting the far right out of ‘protest’. While he points out the dangers of right wing populism, he also has some hope. In identifying the current tendencies as a tension between capitalism and democracy, there is potential for this not only to fuel regressive forms of critique and protest, but also to offer potential to progress towards a more solidaric modern age. It will, however, require progressive forces to engage energetically in efforts to turn the hostile public and political atmosphere around and to channel such tendencies away from right wing populism and towards a more distributory, fair and equitable political landscape.

The key to a solicitor’s career success? Creating connections

bty
By Juliet Kele, Doctoral Student and Teaching Fellow, WERD

Employment lawyers regularly counsel and advise both employers and employees on a diverse matter of workplace related issues, but do they ever reflect upon the employment relationship, and inclusive working practices within their own firms? Historically, the legal profession has been perceived as an ‘old boys club’ – and can still be argued as such in modern times. The senior positions in most law firms are filled with middle-aged, white men (‘male, pale and stale’). These issues have animated my research in aiming to discover whether a smaller law firm size has a favourable impact upon the career progression of female and ethnic-minority lawyers.

The findings of this research reveal that while smaller law firms were thought to have a more supportive culture than larger firms – in terms of implementing flexible-working initiatives and being ‘family-friendly’ employers – lawyers with high levels of social capital were looked upon more favourably at each career progression round.

Using interviews conducted within Yorkshire small and medium-sized legal practices (firms with fewer than 250 employees), my research considers how career progression is experienced by a diverse range of employees and the factors perceived to influence career progression in this context. My analysis shows that a crucial factor perceived as having a positive effect upon career progression – regardless of the smaller firm size – was that of having high levels of social capital: favourable connections and networks.

Some individuals acknowledged their ‘luck’ of good connections – for example, paralegals being able to move companies with their supervisors – and individuals gaining their current position through connections or recommendations. Moreover, it was felt that in smaller law firms, competing against fewer colleagues, individuals may be able to foster a closer mentoring and sponsorship relationship with supervisors than in larger businesses. This, in turn, may be beneficial to career advancement as management come to recognise and acknowledge the efforts of their staff.

Part of a solicitor’s work responsibilities is the development of connections and constant networking. These are highly-desirable skills, not only for the business interests of the company but are also for accelerating the speed of career progression. However, my research demonstrates this may be easier for some groups than for others.

While the smaller law firms were considered to have more supportive cultures than larger firms, for female lawyers aspiring to progress their careers, as reported by the Law Society Gazette, one main stumbling block endured: the choice between career and family. The general impression was that there were still ‘fairly limited opportunities’ for progression in law firms for female employees who wished to have families. Due to familial responsibilities, they felt unable to commit to the extensive demands on their time in terms of networking in connection to both servicing existing and generating new clients, often known as ‘rainmaking’.

Female employees admitted that being a woman in the legal profession was ‘difficult’. Although they had invested heavily into their legal education, they still felt that their colleagues expected them to have children. While some female employees thought that they should not have to choose between prioritising family and work, others said that there was still a ‘sacrifice’ to be made for women in the legal profession. Moreover, two female solicitors directly stated that being pregnant was a career obstacle and disadvantage they had experienced.

Similarly, minority ethnic lawyers also had greater levels of commitments outside of work; either relating to religious observations, responsibilities to both their close and extended families and in assisting their wider communities. The legal profession itself was criticised: with long-working hours and frequent late-nights, networking and weekend work, maintaining a work-life balance was challenging – as one respondent said: ‘something’s got to give’. The opportunity cost here is deciding whether to dedicate more time to family life or to career advancement.

Working-fathers also made sacrifices, but they came at more of a personal than career cost. Work-life balance was important to them, as their ‘biggest career driver’ were their new families. Some working-fathers also criticised the legal profession stating it was ‘a younger man’s game’ – they said that their priorities now shifted more towards a family-focus and being at home with their families; rather than rain-making for their employers.

In sum, from my research, these smaller law firms and their workforces recognise the importance assigned by its valuable ‘knowledge workers’ to maintaining a ‘work-life balance’. These legal practices thus awarded more prominence to the implementation of flexible-working practices than larger companies.

This smaller company size was felt by employees – especially those with external commitments – to have a more accommodating organisational culture than larger law firms. Despite this, with importance continuously placed on a long-hours culture, building connections and constant networking, lawyers with the highest social capital levels will make the most advances in their careers. These lawyers continue to be of the ‘male, pale and stale’ variety.

The 6th CERIC Doctoral Conference 2017: ‘The Employment Relationship’

Ceric 2017 Blog Picture

CERIC Doctoral Students: Marina Boulos, Juliet Kele, Meenaskshi Sarkar and Frederike Scholz.

‘Work’ is a central activity for people for economic reasons as well as a person’s social and psychological well-being. Since work is formalised in an ‘employment relationship’, it is essential to question and comprehend all aspects of this core component of people’s lives. Today the ‘employment relationship’ as understood traditionally appears to be changing at an unprecedented rate. New organisational forms, employment contracts, the rise of the self-employed and the gig economy make it imperative for us to question the traditional paradigms through which we understand the labour market and people’s experiences within it.

Building upon its past successes, the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) conference organising committee at Leeds University Business School are pleased to announce the theme for the 6th Doctoral Conference: ‘The Employment Relationship’. As in previous years, the CERIC Doctoral Conference offers an inclusive environment for doctoral students at any stage of their PhD to share their research and knowledge with peers, but also academics within CERIC. It offers a great opportunity for doctoral students within the Work and Employment Relations field, but also other areas of social science research, to receive constructive and valuable feedback, and to network with academics that are interested in many aspects of the ‘employment relationship’.

CERIC is pleased to offer a prize for the best presentation, which will be the costs (up to £400) to cover attendance at a leading conference of the student’s choice. There is also a prize of £100 for the best poster presentation.

This year’s conference organising committee consists of four doctoral researchers who focus on different aspects of the ‘employment relationship’.

Workplace Stress: Is Prevention Better Than Cure?

Within her PhD research, Marina Boulos explores what is actually done about stress in the workplace. Who is responsible? How is stress managed? Can it be prevented? With the research project, she is trying to answer these questions via two case studies by interviewing main actors in stress management, as well as their employees. Her study tries to discover who’s considered to be responsible for managing stress, designing, implementing and evaluating stress management interventions in organisations.

Career advancement in small and medium enterprises (SMEs): experiences of a diverse workforce

Juliet Kele is investigating how career progression is structured within small and medium-sized law firms in the Yorkshire region; the factors affecting such progression; and how and whether diversity within the smaller firm workforce is managed. The impetus for this research is that despite the economic importance of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), they remain insufficiently studied regarding diversity issues. Juliet uses intersectionality theory in order to examine gendered practices in the SME context.

British Pakistani taxi drivers: An insight on class, culture and employment habitus.

Meenakshi Sarkar has adopted an ethnographic study nestled within the structure and agency debate. While most academics agree that there exists an ethnic penalty in the British labour market, Pakistanis seem to be paying an additional Muslim penalty and a Pakistani penalty, which pushes them to the bottom of the pile in comparison to other ethnic minorities.  Almost 1 in 4 Pakistani men in the UK drive taxis for a living. Is it a choice or a result of constraints? Meenakshi argues that the intersectionality of class, affiliations, gender, and ethnicity form a habitus (Bourdieu, 1984) which metaphorically forms a mental ‘cage’ which impacts on their their agency. The choice to drive taxis is steeped in years of neglect, discrimination, marginalisation and constraints – both real and perceived – in the labour market.

Disability inequality and the recruitment process: responding to legal and technological developments

Frederike Scholz has adopted an emancipatory research approach that has investigated the experience of disabled jobseekers and the growing use of online recruitment and selection practices within the UK. Online recruitment and selection practices can be viewed as inequality regimes that are built on the principle of ‘ableness’, which discount individuals who are not seen as ‘ideal’ because of impairment. In order to understand all aspects of the employment relationship, Frederike has also investigated organisations’ knowledge about the discriminatory impact of online recruitment tools.

The deadline for abstract submission of up to 300 words is Friday, 14th April, 2017

(Notification of acceptance will be sent by Tuesday 18th April).

The abstract submission can be made via email – cericphd@leeds.ac.uk

To register please go to: http://business.leeds.ac.uk/about-us/article/2017-centre-for-employment-relations-innovation-and-change-ceric-doctoral-conference/

Marina, Juliet, Meenakshi, Frederike and the CERIC team look forward to welcoming you on Wednesday 10th May.

For further information, please contact The CERIC team at cericphd@leeds.ac.uk