Traditionally, policymakers have focused attention on the unemployed and employment entry in their efforts to tackle poverty. But a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies stressed the growing importance of labour market conditions, with greater emphasis on job quality and progression. Anne Green agrees that in-work progression is important, but highlights a number of policy challenges.
Recently there has been a growing emphasis on bringing the economically inactive closer to and into employment. This is in line with claims that employment is the best route out of poverty and the government mantra of motivating people to work their way out of poverty.
Evidence and the employment pathway
But moving out of poverty is not just about the pre-employment initiatives and employment entry stages of a person’s employment pathway. It is also about staying in work and in-work progression. However the evidence base on in-work progression is more limited than at earlier stages of employment pathway. What evidence there is highlights the importance of individuals’ and employers’ orientations towards worker progression and supportive Human Resource Management policies, training provision, and strong and direct links between skills development activity and progression routes.
There is a need for policymakers to consider the role of in-work progression as a means of lifting people out of poverty and to take action to facilitate such progression.
Interest in in-work progression is increasing because of:
- a medium-term growth in in-work poverty – with more than half of people in poverty living in a family where someone is in work
- concerns about low productivity – especially in low-pay sectors
- the introduction of Universal Credit
- the policy agenda of devolving funding to city-regions to support economic growth. Local stakeholders’ strategic responsibility for the European Structural and Investment Fund programme has provided opportunities to develop innovative employment and skills initiatives with a focus on progression – but the availability of such funding beyond 2018/2019 has been called into question by Brexit
Opportunities and circumstances
So what is in-work progression? The obvious indicator from a poverty reduction perspective is higher pay. Yet job quality and security are also important alongside pay.
Opportunities for progression – measured by higher pay – are shaped by personal and household circumstances. This includes some individuals choosing to work part-time to take into account sharing responsibilities, or needing to work for longer given state pension age rises, access to training opportunities, employer practices regarding internal promotion opportunities, and firm size and sector. Local labour market conditions, macroeconomic conditions and labour market and welfare policies are influential too. Context matters!
Importantly, individuals have different attitudes towards progression in work: for some it is a long-term rather than short-term goal. For others it is not a priority at all –they are content with their current job.
This suggests that fostering in-work progression is not straightforward.
Research and policy initiatives
Recent research showcased three interlinked policy initiatives for city-regions with an interest in promoting in-work progression to consider. They combine individual and employer‑facing elements:
- a careers information, advice and guidance service for low-paid workers to support progression – designed to enhance National Careers Service provision in England, focusing on key design features such as the payment model;
- an in-work advancement service with a dual focus on individuals and employers – (i) an advancement service for individuals in low-paid work providing a combination of career support/coaching and guidance with training provision aimed at accessing higher-paid jobs, and (ii) a sector-based dual‑customer approach focusing on both employers and low-wage workers, and emphasising employer-led training linked to career advancement opportunities; and
- a business support service aimed at enhancing opportunities for part-time workers – by promoting the benefits of developing part-time talent in the workplace through developing an employer network to champion the issue and the provision of specialist practical advice and support to businesses that wish to make changes to the career development opportunities they offer to part-time workers.
An uncertain time
A broad set of local actors and institutions – economic development agencies; colleges, private sector training providers and universities; trade unions; employers’ and trade associations; local authorities; and employment services providers – have a role to play in developing and implementing a framework for progression-focused employment and skills initiatives pertinent to the needs of employers and local residents. After all, where demand for skills is low and individuals’ skills are not fully utilised, productivity is undermined – and the quality of local jobs in terms of pay, job security and the possibility for career progression is limited.
In the context of Brexit, how in-work progression initiatives might be funded is less clear than before. To date the European Social Fund has been an important source for funding for innovative local employment and skills policy initiatives. There may, however, now be opportunities for local authorities to ‘lead by example’ in their own human resource management policies, and for the introduction of in-work progression-focused and job quality elements in procurement strategies.
In conclusion, at a time of uncertainty it should be remembered that in-work progression initiatives are important – for the individuals concerned, for their broader families and households, for employers and for local economies more generally.