18 Apr 2012

Unemployment down, but snakes not ladders on jobs prospects

I’ve spent much of the past few weeks deep-sea diving in UK jobs data.

Some more of that was released today showing an unexpected welcome fall in unemployment, youth unemployment, and a small rise in the claimant count. Over the next few months C4 News will continue telling the story of jobs in Britain with a series of reports for the Channel 4 Jobs Report (#c4jobs). The first thing to say is that the stories below the surface of the headline number tell incredibly interesting tales of social and economic change in Britain. Let me, in the first instance throw a few insights out there, and please see this as your chance to influence and shape our coverage.

1. Whenever unemployment has reached this level in the past it has always gone on to double digits. (intriguingly this has in the past only occurred three times, all under Conservative governments, who have subsequently been re-elected). Merely maintaining it at the current level of  8.3 per cent in the coming years could be seen as a relative success….

2. But this masks at least a two-tier workforce where those with the right skills and with high skills are starting to see recovery’s green shoots. Low skilled workers face increased competition for the same or a declining number of jobs –  the flipside of globalisation and worries about the recovery. Meaning that…

3. Today’s numbers show that full time employment is decreasing, and being replaced by sectors such as “part time self employed”. There was a massive 89k increase or 6.8 per cent in the last quarter in the number of people working part time because they could not get full time work. Temporary, part time, self employed and flexible or agency work is the direction of travel.

4. Trying to up-skill workers to take better jobs is clearly the Holy Grail answer. But the reality of Britain’s labour market could be, as one agency boss told me, that middle skilled Britons are now as likely to drop aspirations and dip down into the already hyper-competitive low skilled market.

5. For example, of the rise of 437,000 rise in the number of recent UK graduates over the past decade (the Labour government higher education expansion), a majority, 58 per cent (255k) have ended up in “low-skill” jobs

6. In fact is there a “jobs concertina” emerging where a large pool of middle and low skill labour is going for a diminishing pool of the same jobs and trying to compete with …

7. Foreign workers? Latest figures show that 166,000 decline in employment for UK nationals versus 166,000 increase in employment for foreign nationals over the past year.

8. In 2010, the unofficial government story on its Work Programme, was that the Coalition would be judged by the fact that employment growth over 5 years would go to Britons, coaxed back to work by tough love, rather than to eager foreign workers.

9. Is the reality emerging now that a large pot of long term unemployed, former Employment Support Allowance recipients, underemployed graduates, and foreign workers, are all going for the smaller pool of insecure, low-paid jobs? In the absence of growth, this is churning different workers through the same jobs.

10. Is the unpalatable truth that the net impact of the government’s efforts on jobs (Poundland work experience, workfare, etc) is to coerce large swathes of the country to lower their expectations? This obviously runs rather contrary to the “reach for the stars” social mobility rhetoric beloved of all politicians. The ladder of aspiration actually being replaced by the snake of economic reality.

I’ll be exploring this and much more in the coming months on the Channel 4 Jobs Report alongside my colleagues Sarah Smith (check out her first few reports on this) and Jackie Long. All ideas welcome.

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