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We need to talk about low skilled jobs

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‘High skilled green jobs’ is the shibboleth of the think tank-ocracy right now. It is fashionable (and important) to talk about how we create jobs that meet our climate target obligations and support a sustainable economy.

This often means talking about green construction and creating more engineering apprenticeships across Yorkshire and the North. It definitely does not mean supporting the so called ‘low skill’, ‘low pay’ work that has kept all of us going through the pandemic.

I’m talking here about social care jobs obviously, which is the most obvious case of a mismatch between pay and skills. There is a highly gendered aspect to how the skills in social care are valued and thus remunerated. But I am also talking about food service industry workers, couriers, warehouse pickers and other workers in the logistics supply chain, where precarity sets the terms of pay.

The pandemic has laid bare which jobs are really essential. And yet this status is not reflected in either pay or security.

When talks turns to how to ‘level up’ the North, or how to deliver a green recovery, all of these workers are left conspicuously out of the picture.

That is understandable. These jobs have traditionally been low paid and insecure, it is hard to see how you can make them otherwise. Neither are they obvious candidates for ‘green job’ status.

But excluding these jobs from our vision of the future will not make the problem go away. They can be part of a green recovery. And achieving this starts with recognising that these jobs are highly skilled, highly valued, and of huge importance to keeping most people in a job.

Everyday jobs

In their State of the North 2018 report, IPPR North showed how the majority of jobs in the North fell outside of the ‘frontier industries’ identified by the Northern Powerhouse, such as energy, health innovation, and digital.

They note that only 29 per cent of jobs in 2030 will be in the North’s frontier industries, the remaining 71 per cent will be in the everyday economy (IPPR North, 2018).

In Yorkshire specifically, ONS data shows one third of all jobs were and still are concentrated in predominantly ‘low skill’ and ‘low pay’ sectors such as wholesale & retail, administration and services, accommodation and food.

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What is more, the higher paid sectors which are big employers in our region such as manufacturing and construction are showing a steady decline in available jobs, as the economy continues to change.

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[Source: ONS]

Are we stuck in a low wage economy?

So does this mean Yorkshire is doomed to a ‘low skill’ and ‘low wage’ future?

No. The pandemic has shown us that many of these workers were really so vital to our economy that they needed to continue coming into work during lockdown. It has also shown us that jobs which support the social fabric, such as arts, culture and hospitality, are crucial to supporting healthy, happy and dignified lives.

And we know what think tank papers will not tell you: the line chef getting meals out the door faster than you can blink; the courier delivering your online purchase in all weathers; and the shop worker negotiating difficult customers with deft social skills, are all highly skilled workers. And they deserve a wage that recognises this.

Not every job has to be at the cutting edge of digital technology or green manufacturing to be worthy of a decent wage you can build a life on. Lots of people looking for the everyday work that keeps the rest of the economy running live right here in Yorkshire.

Our policy making should recognise this, make sure that they are not left out of our vision for a green future.

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