Though UK unemployment continues to fall, more significant has been the much greater increase in the size of the workforce. For example, the most recent monthly Office for National Statistics data shows a fall in unemployment of just over 200 000 over the year, but a 400 000 plus rise in those working.
ONS data shows a 325,000 increase in employment of non-UK nationals during the last year compared with 120 000 UK nationals, with the latest CIPD labour market survey reporting a fifth of its sample intending to recruit migrant labour in the last quarter of 2015 – and reporting difficulties in recruiting UK born workers for ‘unskilled and semi-skilled’ roles such as factory workers (33%), kitchen assistants and retail assistants. Almost one in five care workers are migrants (Independent 17/11/15)
Karl Marx used the term ‘reserve army’ to describe the pool of semi-employed or unemployed workers who were the consequence of ‘overproduction’ and also the rising organic composition of capital (the replacement of labour by machines) so while the concept might be a useful one, the nature of this modern reserve is rather different. Rather than being part of Marx’s impoverished ‘lumpen’ workforce, research shows that migrant workers are likely to be overqualified (compared with UK nationals, a greater proportion have degrees) for the jobs they are recruited to and in many cases, will have given up more highly skilled –though not better paid – employment in their home country.
It’s now also being argued that as the labour market tightens, employers are increasingly recruiting more young people, the group that have suffered most in the period since the downturn. As a result, there’s optimism about a future increase in the number of apprentices. The number of 18–24 years that work is up nearly 80,000 over the year, but half of these are full-time students (the largest increase in employment for young people has been among 16-17 year old students). Classifying young people as a reserve army is therefore problematic. But on the other hand if education’s main role is now primarily to delay young people entering the labour and reduce official unemployment figures, the reserve army analogy fits very well!