I’m writing this blog in a very different world to the one in which we first began this project. The lives and jobs of the working poor have been dramatically changed by the coronavirus outbreak, with many bearing the brunt of the ongoing economic crisis.
Those working in essential retail, health and social care and transport sectors are now deemed ‘key workers’ keeping the country running during this extraordinary crisis, while hospitality, leisure and non-essential retail workers have seen their sectors close overnight. Many have been unable to work and are instead unemployed, or furloughed as part of the Government’s emergency Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – with recent analysis by Ulster’s Economic Policy centre predicting that 235,000 workers in Northern Ireland had been laid-off or furloughed so far. Research by the Resolution Foundation confirms that the lowest paid are over-represented amongst those impacted by the crisis, with 30% having lost their job or been furloughed.
Low pay and progression in Northern Ireland
It is extremely worrying that the crisis has hit the lowest paid and most insecure workers hardest, especially because many were already struggling prior to the outbreak. Before the crisis, one-quarter of Northern Ireland’s workers earned less than the Real Living Wage. That’s why, way back in 2018 and as part our role as the UK National Co-ordinator for the European Agenda for Adult Learning, the Learning and Work Institute launched this programme of research to investigate in-work poverty and the support available for low paid workers in Northern Ireland.
Through data analysis, a review of evidence and engagement with key experts and stakeholders, the project researched the experience of low paid workers in Northern Ireland and the availability of employment and skills provision that can support progression. We identified a vast range of contextual factors which together contribute to the low levels of pay and career progression. This included a variety of obstacles, including personal and household circumstances, gaps in the labour market, employer practices and wider contextual factors.
Northern Ireland’s employment and skills support landscape
We found that pathways specifically developed to help those in low pay to upskill and/or progress, were significantly under-developed, with provision largely focused on supporting the unemployed and economically inactive to prepare for and enter work. Our review also found a general disconnect between the key stakeholders essential to improving access and support across this area, including government departments, FE, HE and voluntary and community sectors and employers.
Not all was doom and gloom though. We did identify evidence of some innovative models of support. These included:
- Invest NI – a publicly funded body which provides skills assessments, support and funding to SMEs and sector-led employer groups to support business development and expansion.
- Business in the Community NI – a charitable business organisation which providers employer-focused advice and support through campaigns, toolkits and direct provision to help improve business practice.
- Union Learn – a learning budget to support employees to improve their job-related skills through access to workplace learning.
- Department for Economy – Skills-focused initiatives provided to help employers improve business practice. This includes InnovateUs and Skills Focus which provide subsidised skills support to develop knowledge and skills for innovation in business
Designing support to deliver better work for all
Although not specifically focusing on encouraging the progression of low paid workers, these models represent good practice in engaging employers and workers alike and could likely act as a basis for future progression support. Moving forward, there is a need to develop and refine provision in line with purpose of help workers progress in work.
The evidence shows that progression support can come in many shapes and sizes, with three main types of support models:
- Individual-led support focuses on working directly with individuals to help support them to progress in work. This can include a range of support options, including one-to-one adviser contract, employability-related advice and wider provision such as training, health or housing support.
- Employer-led support focuses on engaging with employers and providing guidance and/or support to help improve their practices. Support can include the provision of specialist business advice, job specification re-modelling, mentoring and/or training.
- Skills provider-led support focuses on engaging low paid workers through skills providers. Support is typically based on the provision of skills advice and support, with a focus on supporting workers to upskill or retrain and progress in work.
The current crisis has shone a light on the role of low-paid workers, their place within the labour market, and the levels of low pay and poor job security they face. It is essential that Northern Ireland’s stakeholders and practioners work together to develop and refine employment and skills provision that supports workers to recognise their value and reach their full potential, whilst delivering better work for all.
To facilitate this transition, key stakeholders must work together to explore, develop and test approaches to employment and skills support in Northern Ireland whose purpose and capabilities meet the needs and aspirations of all residents and workers. This shift must be underpinned by four key factors: integration and collaboration, investment to trial new approaches, the use of existing evidence and evaluation and sharing best practice.
Connor Stevens is a research manager at Learning and Work Institute. Connor plays a leading role in L&W’s work on low pay and progression. He currently manages the Better Work Network – a policy and practice-based network which brings together over 300 individuals and organisations dedicated to tackling low pay and expanding the evidence base around in-work progression. If you would like to keep up to date on L&W’s research on low pay and in-work progression register to join the Better Work Network.
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