A HOLYROOD JOBS STUDY OFF THE RAILS FROM THE START

Who doesn’t want more pay? And who would not wish for a more interesting job? But BILL JAMIESON queries whether Holyrood’s Economy Committee has got the answers.

Low pay is one of the most contentious issues in politics. And as for quality of work, according to a recent survey, 76 per cent of workers said they thought their job could be done by a robot.

So ‘Bravo!’ to the Scottish Parliament’s Economy Committee, which has set out to measure “the impact of the 2008 recession on the quality of jobs in Scotland’s labour market”.

Have working conditions have improved or declined since the recession and subsequent recovery? How has the recession affected the health and wellbeing of workers?

And, leaving nothing to chance, it will also explore the impact of low wages and temporary or insecure jobs on the Scottish economy and what the Scottish government and public policy makers can do to improve job quality and wellbeing.

Who could not applaud such a timely and ambitious survey?

But when setting out to measure something, it helps to have a clear idea what you are measuring, that the subject matter is indeed measurable – and that you have results you can use.

The problem here is that it has set to measure an employment market that is by its nature highly resistant to generalisations of this sort.

We have record numbers of work in Scotland – an outcome widely thought impossible back in 2009.And the labour market has become more complex and diverse.

A striking feature of the recession was the decision by employers to ‘hoard labour’ and keep workers very often on a reduced payroll rather than traditional labour shedding. Were employers wrong to do this?

How can we differentiate between changes in working conditions “caused by the recession” and changes brought about by continuing advances in IT and digital technology?

We’ve experienced a sharp uptick in business start-ups and SME activity as the internet and digital technology lowered barriers to entry. But much employment in this innovative and creative sector is by its nature low paid until early investment and expansion starts to pay off.

How do we balance the need for creative innovation with policies to discourage low-paid jobs?

How do we adjudicate between “insecure” jobs and the preference of many for part-time work with flexible working hours and who do not wish to commit to one employer for a lengthy period of time?

Pay rates are now on a notable uptrend. But repeated labour market surveys by the Bank of Scotland and others have pointed to a continuing growth in vacancies – but a notable shortage in suitably skilled and qualified applicants.

If skills shortage is the problem – and many agree that it is – how come it persists despite the wide range of public sector skills promotion programmes now available? How do we measure the effectiveness of these programmes and improve their impact?

And finally, there is the tantalising, catch-all question on what the Scottish government can do “to improve job quality and well-being”.

Let’s assume “job quality and well-being” are measurable characteristics, that subjectivity can be removed and that universal definitions can be found applicable to all the myriad forms and types of occupation.

Even if we overcome these issues, what is the remit, exactly, of government in this area? Who is to assess “job quality”, using what criteria? And what sort of inspection regime does the Economy Committee envisage to supervise and police this?

You don’t have to be a paid-up member of the Awkward Squad to ask what limits are envisaged on government intervention in this area, because there is every risk that it could become a carte blanche for all manner of official scrutiny.

Of particular concern to the committee would be the danger of setting the government up to undertake a brief on which it would almost certainly fall short of expectations and be seen to fail.

None of this is to suggest that there are not features of the labour market which merit scrutiny and proposals for improvement. Skills training is certainly one of these.

And an outstanding pointer to the issues the committee could usefully examine has been presented in the past week by the Scottish Federation of Small Businesses.

According to the latest FSB Small Business Index, the availability of skilled staff is a worry for one in three Scottish small businesses.

The research reveals that this quarter about one in three businesses (31%) reported that staff skills were a potential barrier to the growth of their business.

The FSB in Scotland is supporting new initiatives across Scotland to develop better relationships between education and enterprise – a key recommendation of Sir Ian Wood’s Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce.

Over the last eight years, the SNP has slashed the number of college places with 140,000 part-time places disappearing and a 41 per cent drop in the number of students aged 25 and over.

And Scotland is still lagging behind when it comes to apprenticeship places – with around 500,000 new schemes in England, compared to just 25,000 north of the border.

The Scottish Government’s Digital Economy Business Survey states over 41 per cent of small businesses have ‘some skills gaps’ while 16 per cent have ‘considerable skills gaps’.

These points are broadly echoed by other business organisations such as the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and CBI Scotland.

A focused investigation on these points would prove markedly more helpful than the meandering, ‘catch-all’ brief that suggests a most uncertain understanding of what business, employment – and the changing nature of economic activity – are all about.

 

 

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