Examining poverty, work sustainability and progression among low-skilled workers.
Government policy emphasises paid work as the best route out of poverty and skills policy as part of the way out of recession. Yet even before the recession, concern was growing about job sustainability for low-skilled workers and the lack of opportunities for progressing out of low pay.
This study looks at poverty, work sustainability and progression among low-skilled workers. It examines the experiences of a group of lone parents and long-term unemployed people.
The research - By Kathryn Ray, Lesley Hoggart, Sandra Vegeris and Rebecca Taylor, Policy Studies Institute
Government policy over the past decade has emphasised paid work as the best route out of poverty. Yet even before the recession, concern was growing about job sustainability for low-skilled workers and the lack of opportunities for progressing out of low pay. These concerns have been heightened in the current climate, as those who are most disadvantaged in the labour market suffer the worst consequences of job losses. Given the emphasis now placed on skills policy as part of the way out of recession, it is timely to examine low-skilled workers' experiences of work retention and progression, to help to inform future policy on work sustainability.
The research draws on data from the ongoing evaluation of a government programme promoting work sustainability: the Employment Retention and Advancement (ERA) demonstration (see www.mdrc.org/project_14_63.html). This study is not part of the ERA evaluation, but its findings have implications for similar policy initiatives. Participating groups included lone parents (not in work or in part-time work) and long-term unemployed people. Analyses for the study were restricted to a low-qualified sub-group of participants, who are a key target of the Government's skills policy.
For many respondents, moving into work did not mean the disappearance of financial strain. They described 'struggling to get by', or 'just keeping their head above water'. Whether people felt that they were better off in work related to the nature of the job, household composition and expenses such as housing and debt. Those in low-paid jobs felt financial strain when they took on additional expenditure after starting work (e.g. running a car). This was exacerbated for lone parents, who were often working part-time. Men in the study were generally working full-time, but some were in unstable work and they found it especially difficult to 'get on an even keel’ because of debt and delays in benefit payments.
Household composition and costs were also interconnected with feelings of poverty. For lone parents, having a new partner and the economic activity of older children were important. Those with a mortgage or renting privately could find it difficult to manage because of accumulated mortgage debt, or because housing costs took a large part of their income.
While the experience of financial strain was widespread, it was striking that respondents disassociated themselves from the negative connotations of 'poverty'. Poverty was defined as not being able to afford 'the essentials' and not being able ‘to put food on the table'. It was also associated with an 'inability to manage' (in others). People had developed effective coping mechanisms and expressed pride in their ability to manage on a low income. Their strategies entailed careful budget management and going without 'extras', such as clothes, household goods, home improvements, family trips and socialising. Pride in their ability to 'get by' on a low income also had implications for whether they were willing to take steps towards progressing out of low pay.
Some people in the study had struggled to retain work. Close to a third of the participants had lost their jobs and spent some time out of work within a two-year timeframe. This was much more likely among those entering work from benefits (unemployment or looking after children). Re-entering the labour market for this group was a key transition, with the risk of falling into a cycle of low pay/no pay. Low qualifications, being single, living in social housing and having a child under the age of five also made people more vulnerable to leaving a job.
Four inter-related factors influenced work stability:
The findings of this study add to the growing body of evidence about the 'poor quality' of jobs at the bottom end of the labour market, resulting in low-skilled benefit leavers becoming trapped in the low-pay/no-pay cycle. Of those who had lost their jobs within a two-year period, two-thirds started in temporary posts. While there was some improvement over time, only two-fifths had permanent work by year two. Such employment also offered few benefits. Less than a quarter of those with a break in employment received sick pay, which further threatened job security when people experienced ill health or injury. Less than a fifth said that they had opportunities for promotion or training at work, and only a handful (4 per cent) had achieved promotion since starting work.
However, prospects for moving on were not completely bleak. The number of jobs people had and the length of time spent in work over two years varied considerably, indicating differences in the quality of ‘broken work trajectories’. Some people spent longer periods in work, which allowed experience and earnings to accumulate, and some were able to move into better quality work over the two years. Although starting from a much poorer position in terms of job quality (on a range of measures including permanence, paid holidays, sick pay, pension, supervisory role, work autonomy, promotion or training opportunities, job satisfaction and work-life balance), substantially more people with broken employment than with stable employment reported improvements over the two-year period. This indicates that some people were able to move into better quality work by switching jobs, even if they spent some time out of work.
Despite some evidence of improvements in job quality through moving jobs, a key enabler for work progression was being in a workplace that supported opportunities for progression, such as structured promotion pathways and training at work. This enabled people to feel supported in taking steps towards progression. However, these channels were sometimes blocked to those with caring responsibilities because of the way work hours were organised in more senior positions. Progression through job mobility was perceived to be more risky. Some people were able to use training outside of work to progress to a better job. Financial support and professional advice about choice of training courses were key facilitators in this. However, others who took up training were not able to convert this experience into work progression. Capitalising on training could require people to leave an existing job to move into a new field which might be potentially more insecure (such as agency work or self-employment). In these cases, people were often unwilling to take that step, prioritising stability over progression.
There were also people for whom 'progressing at work' had little resonance with their experiences and aspirations. Some expressed fatalism about their prospects for work improvement and were unable to see themselves in 'better work'. In combination with their ability to ‘manage’ and ‘get by’ on a low income, they were ambivalent towards opportunities to progress in work. Others did not see the possible progression routes open to them as realistic; for example, they wished to avoid the extra responsibilities of management, or lacked confidence about training.
If I … can get into a job and up a ladder, I would do, with training at a place where I’ve got a job … But [not] if you said it [was] in a classroom …
(Single man, 40s, not working)
People also made conscious trade-offs between improving their income and other things that were important to them, such as spending time with their family, leisure time, or staying in a job they enjoyed. In short, people often wished to avoid disrupting the stability of their lives for the uncertain rewards of work progression.
I enjoy my job too much. I would rather be comfortable in the job I love than in a higher paid job that I might not enjoy.
(Lone mother, 40s, working part-time)
Such attitudes and understandings were not set in stone. There was evidence that people could become more receptive to the idea of progressing at work over time, for example for lone parents as children got older and they were able to devote extra time and energy to paid work. Attitudes could also change as a result of a 'lucky break', where someone moved into a job with progression opportunities and they were encouraged to take these up, or as a result of guidance or coaching from professional careers advisers. Sources of emotional and practical support, either from informal networks (family, friends, colleagues) or formal resources (teachers, supervisors, managers, professional advisers) were key in this transition.
This research suggests that 'work as the best route out of poverty' does not always resonate with people’s experience. Although helping people to 'move on' from low-paid, low-skilled jobs is a key theme in government policy, achieving better quality employment is not easy. It is facilitated or constrained by an interaction of personal characteristics and circumstances and social structures. Three factors are paramount:
The researchers suggest that:
The research was undertaken between 2008 and 2009, using the following methods: