Like almost all of his efforts to shore up support amongst his own supporters, Boris Johnson’s ‘Skills, Skills, Skills’ speech at the Tory Party Conference was little more than rhetoric. Even if unemployment continues to fall, there isn’t a jobs boom and there’s not the slightest chance that the UK will become the high skilled, high waged economy he sold to conference delegates.
Of course there continues to be large increases in vacancies in particular areas and as a result, evidence of pay rises well above inflation, notably in the hospitality sector where, if you are prepared to do it, a weekend shift can, it’s reported, earn you up to 10% more than two years ago (with 5% more for a weekday). But as the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports, new employment opportunities as a whole are still 10% below pre-pandemic levels for a quarter of the workforce, with two-thirds of workers facing more competition for jobs.
The predicted growth in higher-paid and ‘quality’ work isn’t happening. The expansion in ‘remote’ (home) working, (in some cases evolving into a new ‘hybrid’ pattern where employees attend their workplaces on a pro rata basis) a direct consequence of the pandemic and considered a positive development by many has made it more difficult for young people to enter employment, as firms have slashed recruitment. In the longer term, work that remains remote is under threat of being outsourced (or ‘platformed’), * a continuation of the long term trend of ‘middle jobs’ disappearing and the occupational structure becoming increasingly polarised. This is the real reason why the Johnson government, rather than ‘levelling up’, wants to push down the number of university students and restrict opportunities at post-16.
The IFS evidence about the links between levels of education and job opportunities post-pandemic is unsurprising. Those educated to GCSE level are enjoying a 16% increase in opportunities and as a result, there has been a significant fall in unemployment amongst 18-24 year olds ‘not in full-time education’. But few if any of the new jobs at the lower end of the service sector are linked to apprenticeships. This won’t change simply by offering a few employers financial incentives. Meanwhile the IFS reports a 8% decrease in opportunities for graduates.
It’s still uncertain, and will be for a while, how the ending of the job support scheme will affect these developments and how (or even if) those still furloughed at the end of September will re-enter the job market. But we can reasonably assume that many, if not most of those (including an estimated 1 in 10 workers under 24) who have been absent from work for over a year at the behest of their employers will not be returning to their old roles.
Uncertainties about the labour market are also unfolding against greater uncertainties over the economy and a major inter-governmental dispute as Sunak refuses to fund even Johnson’s limited spending pledges. With longer term business confidence faltering, the Governor of the Bank of England is signalling interest rates need to rise to deal with the ‘supply-side’ inflation (rather than tame a ‘hot economy’!) caused by Covid, but mostly by Brexit and as a consequence, will reduce expectations further. The Chancellor is certain to use his forth coming budget to reign in the state and the national debt, (even though about a third of it is owned by the Bank of England itself) thus denying the economy the continued support it needs and blocking any serious expenditure on climate change.
- See Phil Jones excellent new book Work Without the Worker, Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism.