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From quantity to quality – what does ‘good work’ look like in rural areas?

With the age of retirement going up, many people will spend 50+ years in employment.
Government policy is seeking ‘to boost the number of jobs and create a flexible labour market…modernising employment law while protecting employee rights…to increase the number of people in employment.’ While the number of jobs available has increased, more recent attention has turned to the quality of that work. In July 2017 Matthew Taylor published his independent review of modern working practices for Government. Titled ‘good work’, the single overriding ambition of the Review was that “all work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment”. In February 2018 Government published its response to the review, including a Good Work Plan for taking forward recommendations on employment policy and legislation. What does good work look like in rural England, why does it matter, and what more can be done to bring it about? Jessica Sellick investigates.

What is good work? The concept can be traced back to the work of Ernst Schumacher in the 1970s – compiled from a series of lectures in the United States delivered to some 60,000 people and culminating in a meeting at The White House with President Carter. For Schumacher the purpose of work was threefold: (i) to produce necessary and useful goods and services; (ii) to enable us to use and perfect our gifts and skills; and (iii) to collaborate with other people so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity. A job in which there was no personal satisfaction was said to destroy the soul.

In the UK, in October 2016, the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor to carry out ‘an Independent Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy.’  The Review was tasked with focusing on six main areas: (i) security, pay and rights; (ii) progression and training; (iii) the balance of rights and responsibilities; (iv) representation; (v) opportunities for under-represented groups; and (vi) new business models.  Alongside this, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) GoodWorkIs campaign sought to test the depth of public commitment to better work.

Supported by a panel of experts, Taylor’s Review was published in July 2017 and called on the Government “to adopt the ambition that all work should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development”.  The Review set out seven steps for achieving good quality work for all. Under a strapline ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’, the steps were: 1. Creating a national strategy for work – the British way – that should be explicitly directed towards the goal of good work. 2. Platform based working provides opportunities for those who may not be able to work in conventional ways but fairness must be ensured for those who work through these platforms. 3. The law should help firms make the right choices and individuals to know and exercise their rights. 4. Companies must be seen to take good work seriously, be open about their practices, and ensure all workers are able to be engaged and heard. 5. Workers must feel they have realistically attainable ways to strengthen their future work prospects. 6. A more proactive approach to workplace health is needed. 7. Ensuring that people – particularly in low paid sectors – are not stuck at the living wage minimum or facing insecurity but can progress in their current and future work. The recommendations made by the Review focused on three broad challenges: (1) tackling exploitation or the potential for exploitation at work; (2) increasing clarity in the law to help people know and exercise their rights; and (3) aligning the labour market with the Industrial Strategy and broader national objectives.

In February 2018 the Government published its response to the Review. It acknowledged the overarching ambition of the Review and accepted all but one of the recommendations [changes to National Insurance Contributions for self-employed workers]. In now taking the Review forward, the Government proposes providing millions of workers with new rights under its Good Work Plan – from taking further action to ensure unpaid interns are not doing the job of paid workers through to asking the Low Pay Commission to consider the impact of a higher minimum wage for workers on zero hour contracts.   

The response builds on Government’s previous support of good work outlined in the Industrial Strategy which included a commitment to ‘promote the delivery of better jobs’. The Industrial Strategy contains five principles which Government believes underpins the quality of work: worker satisfaction; good pay; participation and progression; wellbeing, safety and security; and voice and autonomy.

Following Taylor’s Review, the Work and Pensions and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Committees produced a framework for modern employment. This has led to consultations on the enforcement of employment rights, employment status, increasing transparency in the labour market, and protecting agency workers.

Who does (and does not) enjoy good work? Recent interest in ‘good work’ stems from the rise of in-work poverty or the working poor (these are people in employment but finding it hard to make ends meet), poor employment practices (which undermine individual dignity and autonomy) as well as challenges to future work (e.g. poor real wage growth, poor productivity, getting the skills to match the jobs, new business models and automation).

RSA analysis has found gaps in good work around the pay squeeze (including how many people earn below the Voluntary Living Wage); the time spent on work-related training dropping; the overemployment of workers and/or examples of them carrying out unpaid overtime; an increase in work related stress; a decline in the proportion of workers saying they feel they have a say over changes in their workplace; and the amount of workers struggling persistently with low pay and lack of job security.

The RSA published research in January 2018 containing seven portraits of modern work. Whether a worker is ‘thriving, striving or just about surviving’ depends on a number of variables including their household circumstances (income level and stability of income), job security (the extent to which they feel safeguarded from job loss), levels of personal debt, savings and assets (their ability to meet ends meet), agency (the extent to which they feel able to enter or exit the labour market) and their social support network. Workers identified a ‘job that is interesting’ to be of primary importance, with job security the second most valued aspect, followed by high income, flexibility and autonomy. For those who have yet to build up a high level of economic security they value aspects of a job that can help them feel more secure (e.g. security of their position, wage level).

The RSA and Populus carried out a survey to find out whether what workers value in a good job aligned to their actual experiences of work. The survey found economic worries across four self-defined income groups: (i) those not managing to get by, (ii) those just managing to get by, (iii) those just managing to save and (iv)those comfortably saving. From the 2,083 adults interviewed, four-fifths were worried inflation would outstrip their pay; a third of those ‘just about managing’ had a household income of more than the national average (£34,000); high housing costs were the biggest concern of those not managing; and personal debt worried two-thirds of respondents.

With these findings the RSA is calling for public policy to focus on ‘economic security’ – ‘the degree of confidence that a person can have in maintaining a decent quality of life, now and in the future, given their economic and financial circumstances’. The RSA is asking Government to overhaul health, housing and welfare to fuse economic policy and public services together around economic security. 

For me, two strands of good work analysis missing in this analysis and policy attention. Firstly, detailed mapping to understand which geographies, sectors and job types enjoy good work and which enjoy less good work – and why this is. Secondly, how does the vision of good work (the seven steps) fit with the everyday reality of the workplace – and how might these two aspects be reconciled by employees and employers?

What are the rural dimensions of good work? Rural/urban classifications used for Government statistics indicate the heterogeneity (geographically, socially, economically) of rural areas. There are variations in the relative accessibility/ remoteness of rural areas – with remoter (and especially peripheral/ coastal) rural areas more likely to suffer particular issues concerning connectivity in terms of travel-to-work, travel-to-train and accessibility to other services when compared to more accessible rural areas. There are also variations in the economic position of individuals, in-work poverty, housing affordability, health, etc. The relatively high levels of deprivation in some rural areas tend not to be captured by standard deprivation indices (e.g. English Indices of Deprivation 2015).

From a workforce perspective, rural areas tend to be characterised by an older than average workforce. This has implications for so-called ‘replacement demand’ (i.e. job openings resulting from retirement) and for recruitment strategies and job design. The out-migration of young people to larger urban areas reduces the number of qualified young people for recruitment. The quantity, breadth and depth of different job roles are likely to be greater in urban areas than in rural areas. There are a higher proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), lower than average levels of training, less emphasis on formal qualifications and more emphasis on informal training in rural areas. There are more informal labour market mechanisms operating in rural areas. For example: the number of self-employed people who are barely scrapping a living or workers accepting lower wages or working fewer hours; ‘Job jugglers’: people who have more than one job, some if it seasonal, temporary or part time and low paid; or people out of work and trying to get by not accessing support from [or often on the radar of] Jobcentre Plus and DWP.

The Taylor Review acknowledged how the labour market is changing, self-employment rising and innovative forms of working emerging that current policy and legislative frameworks do not always accommodate.  For me, full time employment remains the norm in public policy and the Review fails to fully acknowledge these characteristics of employment in rural areas.

Where next? While studies on the quality of work have been undertaken there is no single, agreed upon metrics for informing national policy (i.e., good work indicators broken down by geography, sector, demography). The Carnegie UK Trust and the RSA are developing metrics for measuring ‘job quality’ while CIPD and the Warwick Institute of Employment Research (IER) have developed an index of job quality. 

The seven steps to good work apply to three types of individual in the workplace (employees, workers and those who are self-employed) and the Taylor Review has perhaps less to say on what it means for employers – particularly around issues such as how they might further support career development and progression, or help tackle in-work poverty and low pay. If good work is to be available to all the employer voice is important in achieving this.  

Finally, talent for care aims to help people Get Ready, Get In, Get On and Go Further in their careers in the NHS. Developed by Health Education England (HEE) the strategic framework underpinning this employment pathway focuses on providing opportunities for people to start their career in a support role; supporting them to be the best they can be in the job they do; and providing opportunities for career progression.  Within the pathway, development and progression are based upon an individual’s merit, ability and motivation and not their social background or social networks. For me, it speaks to some of the means of achieving good work, namely ensuring workers have realistically attainable ways to strengthen their future work prospects and ensuring workers can progress in work.  How could this approach to workforce development (from entry to in-work progression) and the seven steps to achieving good work apply in rural areas?    

What kinds of jobs do we want in rural areas and how can we ensure that these jobs are fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development for employees in ways that are practical for employers? How can we make sure good work reflects rural labour markets and the ways in which people actually live their working lives?

Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration and a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Rural Health and Care. Her current work includes helping public sector bodies to measure social value; evaluating a mental health project supporting young people; and undertaking a piece of work on migration. In her spare time Jessica sits on the board of a housing association. She can be contacted by email or telephone 01522 521211. Website: @RoseRegen


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