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Busting the myth of low motivation in low-skilled workers

by Simon BROEK
Language: EN
Document available also in: PL ET NL LV

Should low-skilled workers continuously adapt to the needs of the labour market to ensure their own employability? Pia Cort and Kristina Mariager-Anderson of Aarhus University break down preconceptions of ‘unmotivated’ low-skilled workers.

How can people find motivation for lifelong learning (LLL)? Low-skilled people have been and are still a particular concern in LLL policies as they are more at risk in the labour market and upskilling is perceived as the solution to their risky position. In the representation of low-skilled workers and their need to be motivated for learning, policies tend to represent the low-skilled as the problem: they are often portrayed as having low aspirations, lacking confidence and self-esteem, being inactive, if not criminal. The problem of being at risk becomes a psychological and educational problem.

The preoccupation with low-skilled people and their reluctance to be lifelong learners is apparent in surveys and research projects attempting to identify low-skilled workers’ barriers to learning: Are low-skilled workers unable to do what is right according to policies? Should they continuously adapt to the needs of the labour market and ensure their own employability? This policy narrative of ‘unmotivated’ low-skilled workers needs to be questioned.

A complex phenomenon

A Cedefop project focusing on the work narratives of low-skilled people showed that motivation among them is more complex than depicted in LLL policies:

  • Motivation is there! The work life narratives of low-skilled workers in Denmark showed that motivation for learning is indeed present and many low-skilled workers strive to construct meaningful work lives by integrating interests or key values into their work life. Motivation may not always be linked to education or work but oriented to other areas of life such as hobbies or family. Common to the narratives is an effort to reconcile intrinsic motivation, be it for outdoor life, football or social justice, with a choice of career.
  • Low-skilled? The narratives showed that people who are in low-skilled positions are often not low-skilled: either they have acquired informal skills through their jobs which equals skilled qualifications or they have a qualification. But, due to the employment situation or circumstances in the family they have had to take up a low-skilled position in order to earn a living or balance work/life.
  • Motivation as a societal narrative: The concept of motivation has been integrated into the societal narrative of job and education: everybody has to be motivated for LLL in order to stay afloat in the global economy. If people fail, individual motivation is the problem, not the labour market and its incessant and indisputable demands. The global labour market is perceived as a natural force where it falls upon the individual to strive to survive through education, which, however, may no longer be a safe float as more jobs become precarious.

Decentring motivation

The analysis points to motivation as a concept which needs to be decentred and nuanced:

  1. Motivation is not just extrinsic, as often conceptualised in employment and education policy based on 'carrot and stick'; nor does motivation necessarily have to be intrinsic in order for people to engage in an activity.
  2. It is necessary to draw out the assumptions underlying understandings of ‘problems of motivation’ by looking for alternative understandings, and be critical of political categorisations of people, especially when categorised as ‘unmotivated’, ‘inactive’, or as ‘non-learners’ (Honey, 2000).
  3. Finally, we need to turn the looking glass around and instead of focusing on the problem of low-skilled workers’ motivation; we need to look at the problem of a labour market which is capitalising on the increased competition among nation states to attract capital and companies and in this quest are undermining considerations for workers’ wages, working and living conditions.

Pia Cort,, Associate Professor at the Department of Education at Aarhus University. Her research areas include the role of transnational organisations in education policy, especially the EU and processes of Europeanisation; the connections between education policy and practice; vocational education and training from a comparative perspective; and the policy of lifelong learning.

Kristina Mariager-Anderson,, Associate Professor at the Department of Education, Aarhus University. Her research focuses on the areas of adult education, vocational education and training and career guidance especially targeting low-skilled adults. Her particular research interest is the cross field between adult education and career guidance.

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  • Maria Jedlińska's picture

    Osoby o niskich umiejętnościach, czyli kto?

    Chyba należałoby rozszerzyć pojęcie o osoby posiadające wysokie kwalifikacje w swojej dziedzinie czy wysokiej jakości umiejętności, ale z różnych powodów mające deficyt wiedzy w niektórych obszarach. Myślę tutaj o starszych osobach, które z racji doświadczenia mogą się pochwalić wysokimi kwalifikacjami zawodowymi, ale na przykład brakiem umiejętności cyfrowych (sytuacja spotykana nawet w środowisku pracowników naukowych pokolenia 60+)

  • Elżbieta Tomaszewska's picture

    Bardzo ciekawe i potrzebne badania duńskiej kadry uniwersyteckiej , które trafnie ilustrują złożony problem motywacji do uczenia się osób dorosłych o niskich kwalifikacjach. Globalna gospodarka światowa koncentruje się na kumulowaniu kapitału, poszukiwaniu innowacyjnych rozwiązań natomiast prawa pracownicze, ochrona socjalna, dialog społeczny są bardzo często marginalizowane. Niestabilna sytuacja na rynku pracy, ubożenie niektórych grup społecznych i pogłębiająca się wraz z wiekiem niska samooocenna powodują dodatkowe frustracje i niechęć do dalszej edukacji.  Wg teorii M.S. Knowlesa motywacja dorosłych do uczenia się zależy od czterech czynników:

    • sukcesu - dorośli chcą odnosić sukcesy w uczeniu się,
    • woli - dorośli chcą mieć poczucie wpływu na uczenie się,
    • wartości - dorośli chcą mieć przekonanie, że uczą się czegoś wartościowego,
    • przyjemności - dorośli chcą, by uczenie się sprawiało im przyjemność.

    Oznacza to, że uczący się dorośli będą najbardziej zmotywowani do nauki, jeśli uwierzą, że są w stanie nauczyć się nowych treści oraz że uczenie się pomoże im w rozwiązaniu realnych, spersonalizowanych problemów, które są dla nich znaczącym utrudnieniem - np. w życiu zawodowym.

  • Lynne Thompson's picture

    How far was this considered in the study? Someone engaging in low skilled work can face challenges to motivation for improvement, through factors such as being continually being asked to carry out over time in their role. Being asked to cover extra low skill duties only in the contractual designated time.  Or the factor of the low skilled work being an offset to issues and challenges in home life. And there is also a question of a low skilled workers enduring a combination of all of these factors. Surely this would have a bearing on the right conditions to induce motivation?

    Admittedly, I cannot present anything statistical evidence to you in this respect, but is merely an observation made having worked with low skilled people in Adult Education.  It applies to either someone who fits the terminology of a low skilled worker, and also the person who undertakes low skilled work to survive.

    I also think if low-skilled people have evidence around them that educational improvement does not necessary lead a higher rate of pay, they are less likely to feel motivated about developing higher skills. 

  • David Mallows's picture

    Very interesting article - thank you for sharing.

    Great conclusion:

    "Although adult education and career guidance are meant to be helpful interventions for the low skilled, offering the prospect of a better life, if people feel that this is externally imposed upon them, they may find it difficult to embrace what is offered.”

    I think this is a lesson especially for those who design very instrumental workplace learning (i.e. that which attempts to 'equip' adults with the skills they are perceived to lack in order to do their job. Learning in one domain can be applied in another and if adults' motivation to learn comes from something that is '...closer to their personal identity than their job' then they should be encouraged and supported in that, with likely subsequent benefits to their workplace performance. We should support lifelong AND lifewide learning.

    I hope there will be another blog to introduce the ideas in your second paper.

    Best wishes to you both


  • David Mallows's picture

    This blog makes a number of very important points. The authors are quite right to point out that policy makers need a more nuanced understanding of adults' needs and motivation. Employment and education policy conceived for the 'low-skilled' is likely to miss the mark. 

    I was particularly pleased to read this:

    • Low-skilled? The narratives showed that people who are in low-skilled positions are often not low-skilled: either they have acquired informal skills through their jobs which equals skilled qualifications or they have a qualification. But, due to the employment situation or circumstances in the family they have had to take up a low-skilled position in order to earn a living or balance work/life.

    Here the authors talk about 'people who are in low-skilled positions', rather than 'low-skilled people/workers' as used elsewhere and recognise that, while people may not have skills that are highly valued in the labour market, they are likely to have other skills. The authors note this in the context of the workplace, but adults also have skills in many other domains, they may be parents, active members of faith groups, drive a car, play sports, or a musical instrument, be good listeners, or tell a good story. Adults are rarely without skills, even if those skills are not valued in the particular work role that they currently hold or aspire to.  

    As such the term low-skilled adult is innacurate and unhelpful. We need to move the discourse on and, following adult learning theory, design learning that starts with what adults can do, rather than what they cannot.

    Can the authors share more about the Cedefop project mentioned? Is there a report?

    Many thanks



  • Kristina Mariager-Anderson's picture

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your interest.

    While there is a report from the mentioned Cedefop project available (Narrative of career/ labour market related learning of low skilled workers AO AO/RPA/GRUSSOABARA/

    Narrative of learning from the low skilled/022/12.), the points that we make in this blog builds on an analysis solely of the Danish data material.

    In the article "‘In reality, I motivate myself!’. ‘Low-skilled’ workers’ motivation: between individual and societal narratives" (2016) we discussed how low-skilled talk about motivation for learning, work and other activities through a work life span – and we argue that low-skilled workers are active and motivated even if their motivational orientation is not towards what is considered productive activities in adult education policies.

    Another important issue that you also point to is the matter of talking about low-skilled people or talking about people working in low-skilled positions. This is a point that we are planning to discuss in an second article where we focus on the complex narratives of people in unskilled jobs. These narratives open up issues of power and the historical arbitrary distinctions between skilled and unskilled jobs in a labour market. They point to motivation which is ‘linked to other doings e.g. having a stable work life balance or doing their duty’ (Klindt & Sørensen, 2010) or engaging in hobbies which are closer to their personal identity than their job.

    Best regards,

    Kristina & Pia