With the economy experiencing a huge downturn, attention has focussed on likely loss of jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors, many of which are considered ‘low skilled’ (as well as disproportionately performed by young people).
But according to the OECD’s Employment Outlook for 2020, In the United Kingdom, new online job postings for middle-skill occupations contracted twice as much between February and April 2020 as for low-skill occupations, and 40% more than for high-skill occupations. These results point to the possibility that the COVID-19 shock will reinforce the existing trend of employment polarisation….
One reason for the worsening outlook is the acceleration of the longer-term trend for companies to shed white collar office jobs and to rely increasingly on computer systems to perform administrative functions.
In occupational classifications these jobs have been labelled as ‘C1’, in contrast to traditional skilled manual work and ‘technician’ employment that has been lumped together as ‘C2’ occupations. Yet C2 work has also contracted as manufacturing has declined in proportion to other sectors, factory production lines have been automated and craft skills digitalised. As a result, commentators have increasingly described how, rather than the post-war pyramid, the occupational structure is now ‘hour-glassed’ shaped (though arguably, it’s more like a pear!)
Despite the collapse of ‘middle work’, Tory politicians and their policy wonks have continued to insist there are not enough people qualified at this level and to call for better technical and vocational education. Thus, even though approaching half of university courses are ‘vocational’ – in the sense that young people sign up for them with a view to getting particular types of jobs, the current Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson is ploughing ahead ( a White Paper is planned for the autumn) with plans to restore ‘middle-level’ Further Education at the expense of ‘oversubscribed’ Higher.
Yet employers do not report major skills shortages and say that when skill changes are required, most can be managed internally and in a relatively short time. Williamson’s proposals come at a time when a record proportion of school leavers in the UK have applied for university places this year, with more than 40% of 18-year-olds intending to start undergraduate courses ( even if a substantial number may now defer because of uncertainties about how much of campus life will return to normal).
Most young people have a far greater understanding of how the labour market really works than Williamson attributes and know that increasingly higher levels of qualifications are required to get, (rather than ‘do’) any reasonably secure employment – but also that certain types of educational qualifications, particularly from certain types of institutions, get you further up the job queue.
Thus, hundreds of thousands of 16- and 17-year olds will also be signing up for A-levels, while the new T-levels, designed to reinvent a vocational pathway post-16, will likely be under-subscribed, that is if they start at all. Meanwhile as many as 50% of the apprenticeships planned for September probably will not happen.
It is true that German vocational education and training (which, like others before him, Williamson seeks to emulate) has served as a successful middle track, being distinct from academic learning and taking place in separate schools and colleges. It has been successful because it is linked to labour market demand in a more productive economy and coordinated by employers, trade unions and local state agencies. Likewise, German apprenticeships in particular have continued to perform a major role in the transition to adulthood, effectively serving as a ‘licence to practice’ in many occupations.
There is nothing like this in the UK’s deregulated qualifications market. As a result, when UK employers do need to recruit for intermediate level positions, there are plenty of graduates to draw from instead.