With no proven link between education and training and increased economic performance, the mainstream political parties’ focus on boosting skills to ensure UK plc remains competitive is simply a “sleight-of-hand” to avoid tackling more structural labour market problems.
These are the findings of a paper entitled ‘Moving Beyond Skills as a Social and Economic Panacea?’ written by Professor Ewart Keep and Professor Ken Mayhew, director and deputy director of The Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance. The paper is due to be published in the journal ‘Work, Employment and Society’ by the British Sociological Association and publisher Sage today.
The two Professors contend that the current consensus among political parties and a range of interest groups, which include the unions, that education and training should be seen as the principal means of creating equal opportunities ultimately serves to only “deceive both the policy makers themselves and their audience”.
The problem is that this “naive” and pervasive “illusion” is being used to close off other potential avenues that could help in dealing with existing social and economic problems Such avenues include strong social partnerships, more active economic development and redistributive policies.
The issue is that, although education and training is presented as a “loser-free from of redistribution that leaves everyone in more rewarding and fulfilling employment”, in fact it does not “square the circle” on social justice and equity.
“Skills are thus the first and often the only resort because this approach excuses government from acknowledging and addressing issues such as ownership structures, product market strategies, work organisation, job design, employee relations, patterns of innovation, property rights, corporate governance regimes or wider investment patterns,” the paper said.
But it also attested that there was “no reliable empirical evidence” behind the idea that government should subsidise training because employers were failing to develop their staff adequately. This was not least because genuine skills shortages were “relatively small”, often transitory and focused on a small number of occupations.
There was also no real evidence to suggest that producing more skilled workers resulted in higher levels of job creation in order to exploit such expertise or that existing posts ended up being upgraded either. Although there may be an association between higher skills levels and greater GDP in some countries, this was not necessarily a causal relationship.
Moreover, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, the two Professors also suggested that the number of jobs requiring few or no qualifications was actually growing rather than shrinking. In many instances, employers were happy to retain low-skill posts, had little difficulty in filling them and had only limited demand for more skilled workers.
“A combination of rising over-qualification in the developed world, coupled with the capacity of developing countries to capture an increasing share of higher skilled employment, means that in the UK and elsewhere, the supply of ‘good’, relatively highly-paid jobs may actually dwindle,” the paper said.
Moreover, if the real problems lay elsewhere – for example, having too many ‘bad’ jobs available and the number people qualified to take ‘good’ jobs exceeding the number of such opportunities – then “further increases in skills and qualifications are unlikely to transform the outcomes”, the Professors said.
But this problematic situation demanded that the research community clarify what, on their own, skills could deliver and which problems they could and could not solve, the Professors believed.
Such work included developing broader occupational identities and understanding their links to skills; revising labour market structures to aid progression and improving the quality of working life, work organisation and job design.
Also required were fresh approaches to industrial relations and the employee ‘voice’, wage setting and income distribution; new ways of looking at welfare regime design and management and a revitalised approach to governance and economic development policies.