Why measuring good work matters to ensure good future jobs

December 10, 2019

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By Gail Irvine, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

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.

There is much debate currently about the future of jobs. The pace of change – in the rapid rise of digital technology and the ever-growing globalisation of the economy– is understandably leading to anxieties about that we are on the cusp of widespread disruption to whole industries and forms of work, perhaps the very conception of work itself.

The media is attracted to headlines about robots taking over our jobs. Yet we can also observe longer running trends, including the decline of trade unions and collective bargaining; the rise of working poverty; chronic skills mismatches and shortages in key industries; and the narrowing of opportunities with those with no formal skills, which are contributing to justifiable anxiety about the future prospects for workers.

In Ireland, part of the response to these trends has been Future Jobs, the cross-departmental, multi-year agenda from the Irish Government, ‘preparing now for tomorrow’s economy.’

Forward-looking initiatives of this kind are important in structuring employment and labour market policy. Yet we also need to define and measure the issues we are seeking to address. We need to identify the nature and type of jobs that we want to support and understand how well these ambitions for quality work are currently met within the labour market in Ireland. As employment trends are playing out differently in different sectors, regions and for different groups of workers, it’s important to look to the evidence to understand the most pressing current challenges and how they can be alleviated.

There are challenges in accessing robust data on the changing nature of work, particularly regional level data. An important first step is for governments to explicitly recognise a role in scrutinising quality of work.  This should be accompanied by committing resources towards tracking the levels of quality work in the economy.

Why? Because simply getting people into work is not where public policy’s interest should end. Any type of employment is still generally better for health, wellbeing and the economy than being unemployed – but we need to measure our progress against much more than just this low bar. As levels of in-work poverty attest, getting a job is no longer a guaranteed route towards financial self-sufficiency. This undermines the social contract of work as well as putting further pressure on social security and health services. The UK-based What Works Centre for Wellbeing, which collates the highest quality available evidence for policy making, notes the positive wellbeing impact offered by jobs which exceed minimum legal standards to deliver on aspects of job quality, concluding that: ‘having a job is good and having a good quality job is miles better.’[1] In sum, quality of work really matters – to tackle low wages and in-work poverty, to unlock individual potential, build healthy and thriving communities, and ensure that paid work contributes to better quality of life.

Future Jobs Ireland may be well positioned to undertake quality of work analysis and action. But it is important that any attempt to measure quality of work goes beyond (undisputedly important) questions of pay and skill levels to encompass a broader range of aspects of job quality that matter for the wellbeing of individuals and labour markets. This might include data on terms of employment (contract types, flexibility and work-life balance); worker voice and representation, health and safety and mental health impacts, use of skills, and opportunities for training and progression. Job quality is a multi-dimensional concept, and while we may have our own views about what makes a good and bad job, there are examples of job quality frameworks being developed to advance ‘quality work’ policy ambitions.

Efforts to measure quality of work in Ireland would not be starting from a blank page. High quality academic, national and European surveys have been used to capture data on different aspects of job quality over the years. For example the CSO tracks key employment metrics through the Labour Force Survey while some other qualitative aspects of job quality are captured through Eurofound surveys such as the European Working Conditions Survey.

Our Fulfilling Work in Ireland research used these data sources to analyse availability and quality of employment through the Great Recession to 2017. The picture that emerged was mixed. Ireland had amongst the highest median hourly earnings in the EU, and workers in Ireland reported comparatively high scores on issues such as career prospects and their ability to express their ideas and influence decisions at work. But we also found that there had been a serious increase in involuntary part-time and temporary working during the recession; that young people were the worst effected by deteriorating pay and terms and conditions; and that pay inequality, as well as endemic low pay in sectors like hospitality and cleaning, were urgent issues.

This report gave us a picture of a point in time. There are various other organisations drawing insights from their analysis of what labour market data we have, such as Social Justice Ireland and TASC. What is lacking though is consistent, wide-ranging, regularly reported national data. The CSO’s Labour Force Survey is very regular and robust, but provides only limited coverage of quality issues (e.g. pay, contract type, over and underemployment). The European Working Conditions Survey provides rich qualitative job quality data on aspects such as worker autonomy, workplace relations and work-life balance. However, its frequency (every 7 years) is sub-optimal to inform policy-making, and its relatively small national sample size limits the analytical possibilities. Ireland’s labour market has clearly undergone great changes through pre and post-recession to today, but the reporting of these changes – and therefore our understanding of what to do about them – lags behind.

Ireland is of course, not the only jurisdiction in facing this challenge. The Carnegie UK Trust has undertaken recent work with the RSA to seek to instigate national job quality reporting in the UK. We sought to take forward the Taylor Review of Modern Employment recommendation that ‘UK Government should identify metrics against which it will measure success in improving work, reporting annually on the quality of work in the UK economy.’ We brought together a group of cross-sectoral stakeholders in an eight-month process to think through some of the conceptual and practical challenges of measuring job quality annually, and to agree a workable framework to begin doing so.

Our group discussions focused on the key question of ‘what to measure and how to measure it?’ There is a weight of academic evidence discussing key indicators of job quality, so the challenge was to prioritise these to a manageable set of measures to go in a national survey. After much discussion and debate, we arrived at 18 priority metrics, grouped under seven dimensions:

Dimension Concepts to be measured
1.       Terms of employment

 

2.       Job security

3.       Minimum guaranteed hours

4.       Underemployment

2. Pay and benefits

 

5.       Pay (actual)

6.       Satisfaction with pay

3. Job design and nature of work

 

7.       Use of skills

8.       Control

9.       Opportunities for progression

10.   Sense of purpose

4. Social support and cohesion

 

11.   Peer support

12.   Line manager relationship

5. Health, safety and psychosocial wellbeing

 

13.   Physical injury

14.   Mental health

6. Work-life balance

 

15.   Over-employment

16.   Overtime

7. Voice and Representation

 

17.   Trade union membership

18.   Employee information

19.   Employee involvement

 

The preferred survey vehicle for collecting data on these measures was also debated, but we concluded that the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) was the most optimal by far. The characteristics of the sample and regularity of the LFS would offer a much greater level of segmentation and analysis, which we saw as crucial for informing policy interventions and stimulating debate. We also saw a presentational opportunity, to place job quality on equal footing with job quantity. Our vision was that when the new LFS employment statistics were released and in the news cycle, we would also see stories covering a range of things that matter to quality of working life – such as changes and trends in pay, contract type, employee representation and people’s health and wellbeing at work.

Agreeing exactly what job quality metrics to measure progress against can be challenging, but this is where the value of a cross-sectoral group comes in. In our process in the UK, hearing perspectives from academia, policy, small businesses, key sectors like retail, the trade unions movement and many others allowed us to consider the different aspects of quality work, and how these can be enabled and reported on. Arriving at a consensus view signalled strongly to government that this agenda had a broad range of support and authority they could draw upon as they moved ahead. In December 2018, the UK Government’s Good Work Plan announced its commitment to taking forward measurement on job quality, and to consider the recommendations of our Working Group. There may be opportunity to advance a similar initiative in Ireland, which could act as an important sounding board and influencer on what is measured as progress towards ‘good quality’ Future Jobs.

Of course, getting better data about work in Ireland can only be a starting point. Tackling the complex causes of issues like low pay, low skills use and insecure work in different sectors obviously requires political will and a range of actions over the medium term. Nevertheless it is an important step. Better data can help to inform public incentives and interventions that promote better work. Shining a light on sectors where job quality appears high can help other employers understand how aspects of good work and job design can be encouraged and enabled for a more productive workforce. Most importantly, asking more of the right questions about job quality in Ireland will get more of us talking about how to improve it.

[1] Submission by Nancy Hey, Director of What Works Wellbeing to the Carnegie UK Trust, September 2017. See https://whatworkswellbeing.org/product/job-quality-and-wellbeing/ for more information.