I recently found myself sat in a stately home in the UK. A small group of politicians, academics and practitioners were there to explore what the UK could learn from Germany and what Germany could learn from the UK about skills. In short, (for now) the UK has better higher education and Germany (for now) has better vocational education and training.
I sat staring out of the large drawing room windows onto the sun-lit, rolling and very green southern English countryside. It was Downton Abbey on steroids; the past but now vanished glories of the British Empire pervaded the atmosphere. It was the kind of place where the Great Powers once carved up the Middle East – and created some of the problems that now exist there.
Shaken out of my historical reverie, I started to think about today’s employment problems. In the US and Europe unemployment is high, particularly for young workers; the employment participation rates of women and migrants also need to be raised; too many low skilled, low wage workers are stuck in a bad jobs trap; and, as the population ages, ways need to be found to enable older workers to work longer.
I’ve previously blogged about the need for more and better jobs. But specific challenges need specific responses. In this case, the solution, as Alf Garnett, a cantankerous British sitcom character in in the 1960 and 1970s, would say, is ‘bleedin’ obvious’: we need to create stepping stone, sticky, springboard and stretchy jobs.
Stepping stone jobs are entry level jobs that lever people out of unemployment or economic inactivity. These jobs might have low barriers to entry, for example not formally requiring qualifications. However creeping credentialism means that even some working class jobs now need a degree for a worker to be hired – which is absurd.
Sticky jobs are jobs that enable workers to stay in employment and which avoid the ‘no pay, low pay’ churn in and out of employment and unemployment that entrenches poverty. Features of jobs that create stickiness might be: appropriate working times or levels of pay compared to welfare benefits – or simply good management-labour relations.
Stepping stone and sticky jobs cannot be allowed to become dead ends – there are too many workers in the US and UK in are bad job traps, unable to escape their current work. Having a sticky job, for example, shouldn’t mean getting stuck in a job. Jobs are needed that offer routes (or, in the new policy jargon, ‘pathways’) to other jobs. Springboard jobs are jobs that offer progression opportunities to better jobs, with higher skills demands and higher pay – or in the case of hotel cleaners, having secure pay. I cautiously suggest that the lever can be training and education but the enabler would be the existence of career ladders within internal or external labour markets. I am cautious because whilst job tenure hasn’t dramatically changed, many organisations have, becoming not just leaner but flatter with fewer opportunities for internal progression. Therefore routes up need routes out for many workers currently.
Stretchy jobs allow workers to work on into later life. Culling good pensions might force older workers back into the jobs market but if jobs are not redesigned for older workers and their diminished physical capacities or increased care responsibilities for grandchildren they won’t be able to go on working.
To address our current employment problems, the aims has to be to get more people into jobs, keep them in those jobs help them progress in jobs and work as long as possible.
The scope of these’4Ss’ – stepping stone, sticky, springboard and stretchy jobs – goes much wider than the US Workforce Investment Act, under which initiatives have tended to focus on getting the low skilled and unemployed into work. Getting more workers into jobs is important but not sufficient; once in employment they need to be able to sustain that employment and progress in it.
It should be recognised that each of the 4S jobs is not exclusive to one type of worker. Female, migrant and young workers would all benefit from springboard jobs for example to help them progress out of dead end low wage jobs. Moreover the same types of workers often need more than one type of 4S job over their working lives. For example, young workers have difficulties gaining employment. If they do manage to find work and it is low skill, low wage, what seems like ‘good fortune’ in the short-term is likely to scar the rest of their working lives, reducing their future pay and prospects. They therefore need both stepping stone and springboard jobs.
The task is to identify the conditions under which these jobs exist and can be encouraged. Because of the overlaps in the types of workers in each type of job, it’s a project that lends itself well to a co-ordinated grad student project. Each student would focus on one job type but the student cohort would work collaboratively across the project looking for synergies and similarities of possibility. It would be a project that would add to scientific understanding of work and have real impact on policy and – just as importantly – people’s lives.