Gone are the days when, educated or otherwise, qualified or not, a person could walk into a job and, if they didn’t like it, simply move on to another one. The world of employment has changed drastically in recent decades, with implications for the economy, education, welfare and public services. Securing the UK’s future prosperity means recognising how change continues to affect us and acting accordingly.
During the 1980s, globalisation made itself felt and manufacturing took flight, commencing its quest for the cheapest dollar. Mines closed in their hundreds and new technologies took hold, introducing easier and faster methods of production. Much as I didn’t like the government’s policies at the time, the truth was that most of the job losses in the power industry were due to advancing technologies.
We have seen profound changes in the labour market since then. After a sharp fall in the 1980s, employment increased steadily, with an extra 4.8m people in employment between 1992 and 2008. Yet, as a recent report by centre-left think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research showed, manufacturing employment fell by 31% during that time. The increases came in sectors such as real estate, up by 103%, and information and communication, up by 59%, as well as in health and social work, and education.
There have been numerous legislative responses, such as the right to request flexible working introduced by Labour. Despite the musings of some policy advisers – most of whom have never set foot in a workplace outside of Westminster – I believe these steps are recognised by most employers as both helpful and essential. There has also been an emphasis on education for all. I agree with the intention, but I question the bias towards academia at the expense of vocational training. The country needs people with practical skills, but we have seen too many young people convinced that a university education is the only or best option.
Investing in innovation
Of course, the financial situation is very difficult and it would be crass to pretend otherwise. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that education spending is being slashed by more than 13%, the largest cut since the 1950s. By taking away Education Maintenance Allowances, collapsing the Future Jobs Fund, cancelling the right-to-work experience and increasing fees to attend university, the coalition government is taking this debate in completely the wrong direction.
So what do we need to do? First, we need a long-term strategy that recognises we are a global player – none of us will be thanked if we do not work to take a leading role in the world’s economic development.
Second, we need to invest in education and training, to support pupils making choices, to create opportunities for work experience and to enable employers to build relationships with schools. We need investment in vocational training, including opportunities for people to retrain or to take up apprenticeships. Equally important are second chances for women after children. Increasing women’s participation in the workplace could be worth £15-23bn each year.
Third, we need to invest in research. High-volume manufacturing is unlikely to return to this country, which is all the more reason to invest in innovation.
Finally, we need to acknowledge how far society has changed. Groups left behind will not tolerate being at the bottom of the heap forever. Positive action programmes are needed to help employers understand that we cannot afford to leave great swathes of the population on the unemployment shelf.
Failure to act will not only see the UK become a has-been. It will also exacerbate the already unacceptable wealth gap and lead to an unhappy and divided society.
Name Margaret Theresa Prosser, Baroness Prosser, OBE
Peerage Life peer of Battersea, London Borough of Wandsworth
Became peer 2004
Key roles Deputy chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission (since 2006), Labour Party treasurer (1996-2001), Trades Union Congress president (1996)
Political compass Centre-left
Greater autonomy for schools Strongly against
EU integration Strongly for
Stricter asylum system Strongly for
Baroness Prosser is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Management and a CMI Companion