Ensuring Good Future Jobs means a focus on job quality

December 10, 2019

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By Shana Cohen, Director of TASC

The Carnegie UK Trust-TASC Ensuring Good Future Jobs essay collections describes many of the key challenges faced by workers in Ireland today, and proposes a series of policy and practice changes to ensure good future jobs. First published on 28 November, as a coordinated response to the Irish Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy, this blog series showcases the contributions by key social partners in Ireland to the collection, beginning with this introductory overview by Shana Cohen, TASC’s Director.

Future Jobs Ireland 2019 details the government’s strategic priorities in preparing workers for job markets of the future while addressing current challenges, such as the productivity of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the impact of automation/technology and the transition to a low carbon economy. The report states that, “The Government is ambitious to build upon the gains we have made in recent years and to ensure our people enjoy higher standards of living and quality of life now, and into the future” and declares that, “Future Jobs Ireland will ensure our enterprises and workers are well placed to prosper in the rapidly changing global economy.” (p. 8).

Government policy should account for the impact on the national job market of technological innovation, the urgent need to advance climate action, and global economic trends. These changes could affect demand for particular skills and the capacity for marginalised and vulnerable social groups, parents returning to work, and older people not wishing to retire fully to participate in the labour market.

The Future Jobs Ireland report itself focuses much of its attention on upskilling, productivity, climate action and economic diversification, and labour force participation, especially amongst women re-entering the labour market and welfare recipients. While all of these areas merit policy intervention, the collection of essays assembled here asks if policymakers need to focus as well on the quality of work itself, especially amongst groups at risk of exploitation and discrimination. These groups include young people; women with children; men and women without third level degrees or who are disabled or suffering mental health issues; migrants; and Travellers. Does having a job for them necessarily lead to a better life? How difficult is it to find a job that provides a decent income and leads to better opportunities in the future?

By concentrating on having a job, rather than what the job provides, especially financial security and morale, the Future Jobs report risks mistaking employment for personal satisfaction. For instance, the report claims that “A labour market which offers flexible working solutions can result in a win, win, win for employers, workers and society. For the employer, benefits include greater attraction of workers from a larger pool of talent especially valuable in a tight labour market, staff retention, a more motivated workforce with fewer sick days and greater productivity.” (p. 61)

Certainly, some workers would prefer a flexible arrangement for a variety of reasons, including childcare (see Orla O’Connor’s contribution). But others may not want these arrangements at all, as several contributors in our Ensuring Good Future Jobs collection, which seeks to broaden the debate about job quality and what we mean when we talk about ‘quality’ future jobs, point out. As Michelle O’Sullivan, Joan Donegan, James Doorley, and Patricia King note in the collection, workers in these cases are forced into self-employment and precarious working arrangements because they are the only options available to them. Moreover, the jobs may also be low-wage (see Rob Sweeney’s and Edel McGinley’s contributions), leading to persistent financial insecurity and personal anxiety. Certain workers may also be systematically excluded from participation (see Charlotte May-Simera’s essay). The motivation and greater productivity the report refers to may thus not be applicable, provoking questions as to how much flexible working should figure into strategizing about future jobs, at least from the employees’ perspective.

The employees’ perspective and needs must drive policy as much as that of employers to contribute to raising productivity and sustaining employment rates. For instance, enrolment in higher education has continued to rise, or 16% between 2012 -2017, and particularly in technology and science degrees, or a 38% increase during the same period. (HEA 2018) At the same time, literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy rates in Ireland are relatively low compared to other EU countries. The EU Digital Economy and Society Index 2018 reported that 52% of Ireland’s population lack basic digital skills, which is one of the lowest levels in the EU, and Ireland has one of the lowest shares (79%) of the population using the internet, a figure based on shares increasing more rapidly in other EU countries.  Though the report does mention implementing Upskilling Pathways to improve literacy rates and encouraging enrolment in lifelong learning, the statistics cited above suggest this investment should be as great a priority as computer programming, science, and engineering (see Ted Fleming’s contribution).

At the same time, as Joan Donegan points out, the livelihoods of those teaching should also be considered. Education, care, and health services (see Phil Ni Sheaghdha’s contribution) depend on frontline staff who may be struggling with insecure work, low pay, understaffing, and long hours. Policy regarding jobs must account for their working conditions and motivation so as to assure quality of service. This intersects with Richard Wynne’s essay on the importance of the promotion of mental health in the workplace. In addition, policy support for models of economic democracy (see Cian McMahon), community wealth building approaches (see Sean McCabe) and management practices more attuned to employee needs (see Tomás Sercovich) would also contribute to enhancing worker morale and motivation, and potentially greater income.

In sum, preparing for future job markets and the diverse needs of different social groups helps everyone, from children in school to pensioners and parents seeking part-time work. However, policy has to consider what makes for a good job, rather than just the job itself. As Gail Irvine notes, more comprehensive and consistent data is essential to informing future policy and practice on ensuring quality future work. The consensus from the essays here is that a good job offers a decent/living wage, protects individual dignity, allows the worker to plan for the future, and treats fairly particular categories of workers, such as migrants or disabled people. Future job policies should seriously regard these dimensions, however intangible, and likewise go beyond skills and job supply to how jobs contribute to public optimism and perceptions of a flourishing society.