How to make low-skilled jobs seem more attractive

From top left clockwise, woman stacking shelves, shop assistant, man sweeping in hairdresser, factory worker, man pulling pint

Successive governments have prioritised getting more young people into higher education.

But has an unintended consequence of this social mobility drive been the neglect of low-skilled work?

When I was employment editor of the Financial Times back in the early 1990s, almost every week another report would land on my desk predicting that most people in the future would have a fancy job in business services or the creative sector, and that unskilled jobs would fall to a few hundred thousand.

Politicians latched onto this story.

"Today the British economy has just nine million highly skilled jobs," Gordon Brown said in his penultimate budget speech in 2006.

"By 2020 it will need 14 million highly skilled workers. And of 3.4 million unskilled jobs today, we will need only 600,000 by 2020."

But it hasn't worked out like that.

In fact, experts estimate that between one quarter and one third of all jobs in the British economy today - as many as nine million - are low-skilled, and the number is increasing in sectors like care, retail and hospitality.

There is also a sense that some of these jobs have a bad image.

"You're not valued on how necessary your job is; you're valued on how much you're paid," supermarket worker Donna Braithwaite tells me.

Bad Image

"So, highly paid footballers and models are esteemed, and cleaners and care workers and shop workers aren't."

Image caption Many young men want to be well paid footballers

And some sectors are experiencing recruitment problems.

In part, it is because we have higher expectations about what we want from a job than people used to, according to Professor Caroline Lloyd, who was recently involved in a large study of low wage work in five industries across the UK and Europe.

"Young people are always being told to look high, be ambitious; and then, faced with a labour market where the jobs aren't very good, then of course there's a lot of dissatisfaction there."

Over recent years, she says, low-skilled jobs have become relatively less well paid, and often more demanding.

Given this backdrop, we should not be surprised that people - especially young men - no longer want to do basic jobs.

Jobs that are neither well paid, nor a source of creativity, are no longer esteemed by the wider culture.

But we still desperately need people to do these jobs, which are some of the most essential in modern Britain.

Offices and streets need to be cleaned, supermarket shelves stacked and care home residents looked after.

Moreover, as the government is now trying to reduce immigration flows - at least from outside the EU - these jobs will increasingly have to be done by people born and educated in this country.

Paying More

So how, if at all, can these jobs be made more attractive?

Paying more for them would be a start, and there is welcome pressure in many industries to pay a living wage, not just a minimum one.

But progress on pay is not going to be fast.

Giving more thought to job design, and how to make even quite basic jobs more satisfying, is easier to achieve.

Good employers do this already.

The supermarket chain Iceland has won an award for employee satisfaction.

"Customers, if they're having a bad day, I feel that I make them leave the shop with a smiley face. It makes me feel good for the rest of the day," says part-time cashier Tracey Vella.

"There may be some parts [of the job] that are quite mundane", store manager Sandra McNamara tells me.

"But the key is that those people understand how important they are; and if they don't fulfil those duties, everyone else in the store is not going to be able to fulfil part of theirs."

Staff are given training in more than one area, too, she says.

It turns out that despite the poor image of basic jobs, the people who do them often rather like them, especially when they involve a degree of autonomy and working in small teams.

Job satisfaction levels are just as high, if not higher, in basic jobs as they are in the jobs done by the highly educated, according to Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University.

Image caption The supermarket chain Iceland has won an award for employee satisfaction

Yet talking to employers in areas like social care, it is clear that there remains a huge perception problem for these basic jobs, especially for younger people raised in a "you can be whatever you like" culture.

"There's a view now that if you can't do anything else, you do care," Bill Mumford, head of the care home charity MacIntyre, says.

For sociologist Geoff Dench, who runs the charity Men for Tomorrow, this is part of a bigger story about a necessary devaluation of the ordinary in a system built around aspiration and upward mobility.

The writer, Michael Young, warned of this effect 50 years ago. He coined the term "meritocracy" in his book the Rise of the Meritocracy, but warned against the practice.

To Mr Dench this is a zero-sum game - good jobs seem to need bad jobs.

But surely that is too pessimistic.

Having worried so long about reforming higher education and getting as many people as possible into the high-skill knowledge-economy jobs, politicians are now perhaps beginning to wake up to the issue of the bottom jobs too.

Even the founder of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl, who has been an effective lobbyist for social mobility in recent years, admitted to me that he now worries about the unintended consequences of his mobility drive on those of only average ability, who are not going to make it into the charmed circle of the top professions.

"I think you're right - one of the unintended consequences has been: 'What about the people that don't go to university?'

"And obviously Ed Miliband has thrown out this challenge: What do we do about the bottom 50 per cent?" he says.

If all are led to believe that they are destined for a top job, we will create a huge gulf between expectation and reality - one of the greatest causes of human unhappiness - and the jobs at the bottom will be hard to fill.

That is bad psychology and bad economics.

David Goodhart is the director of the think-tank Demos and editor-at-large at Prospect magazine.

Listen to the full report on Analysis on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 18, February at 20:30 GMT and Sunday, at 21:30 GMT.

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