Skills, poverty and unions

Picket line at British Leyland, Cowley, during strike in 1979 ©TUC Library Collections
Picket line at British Leyland, Cowley, during strike in 1979 ©TUC Library Collections

In the seventies, it was widely thought that strikes were the British disease. Unions were seen as part of the problem. Today it is low skills that are the British disease. And unions are seen as part of the solution.

Unlike strikes, skills rarely make the headlines. But they are behind many of the "presenting problems" which do make the headlines – such as low productivity, poor exports, tensions over immigration, booming house prices and, above all, rampant inequality, falling living standards and low pay.

Of course strikes are more exciting than skills. They make good television, unlike the world of skills which reminds people of boring classrooms and is full of jargon and acronyms. But any survey of economists will show a consensus on low skills being a massive problem.

The UK has almost the worst record on skills among developed nations. Uniquely, young people's ICT skills were worse than those of older adults.

Over half of all employers don't train and over half of all employees don't receive any training. In the past decade, employer investment in skills has actually fallen.

Pay is the biggest skills problem. The TUC has just finished a second Fair Pay Fortnight. Low pay and low/no training go hand in hand. NIACE and UKCES surveys have shown that the well paid and well educated receive five times as much training as the lower paid with fewer skills. That gap is widening.

For the 5 million workers on various forms of vulnerable employment such as temporary or agency staff or bogus self employed staff (rife in the building industry for tax reasons), training is almost impossible to deliver. For the half million staff on Zero Hours contracts it is difficult to organise any training since their working hours are so variable and changeable.

Training, like pay, is becoming polarised. In sectors which are creating jobs like retail, catering, hospitality or social care, wages are very low, turnover high and training generally poor. Conversely, sectors such as automotive, software or pharmaceuticals are booming, pay and training is relatively good, but there are fewer jobs.

Low skills and low pay affect women and BME communities far more, exacerbating existing problems such as poor English skills, lack of access to jobs and poor housing. In-work poverty is rising as investment in skills is falling. No training means vulnerable workers remain stuck in low paid jobs.

There are no simple solutions because skills are complex and regulation is never popular. But without a stronger framework, the economy will not thrive and, in-work poverty will get worse.

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Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson is Director of unionlearn and is responsible for the strategic leadership and management of unionlearn. He represents unionlearn at senior levels with trade unions, government and other organisations.

He is responsible for developing and implementing the strategic plan. Tom also works with the unionlearn board and its advisory committees.