Labour Market Research and Information

Three key questions successive Government have failed to tackle adequately are:

  • How is the supply of sources of labour and skills changing?
  • How is the demand for labour changing?
  • How is the balance between supply and demand changing?

In this article Dick Evans examines the consequences.

These are the questions that drive and in form labour market research and information. In spite of an immense amount of effort over many years skills gaps and shortages continue to occur.

Skills gaps and shortages occur when there is an imbalance in the labour market namely a mismatch between the demand for and supply of labour. The researching and subsequent interpretation of labour market information has always been a complex and difficult exercise. Partly because of this it has been a somewhat inexact activity in planning future numbers of employees in key areas of employment e.g. health, education, manufacturing and the information communication technology industries etc. In order to reduce the shortages successive governments have poached third world professions e.g. nurses, doctors, teachers and IT specialists whom developing nations can ill afford to lose.

The problems have not only been associated with the public services, the private sectors have also experienced difficulties in recruiting sufficient and appropriately qualified people particularly into the new areas of employment.

In spite of the emergence of more sophisticated techniques and methods employed in labour market research and information, skills shortages continue to develop at a pace. Successive governments have established skills strategies and introduced wide ranges of activities and initiatives to tackle the long standing problems of this country’s inability to maintain let alone increase its market share in the international league tables.

Skills agenda.

The delivery of this government’s skills agenda relies heavily on a number of agencies taking forward its various priorities and associated policies e.g. the DfES has its own skills unit which is responsible for national policy whilst the Regional Development Agencies are responsible for improving the skills at regional level and the Local Learning and Skills Councils are responsible for local skills of the local workforce. Following the extended remit of the Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs) other organisations and agencies have a responsibility to inform market information such as Connexions, colleges and other training providers. This wider remit now includes strategies on community and voluntary activity with the drive to increase participation and tackle social exclusion, all of which will require reliable and valid information and effective research. These issues will precipitate some major challenges as many of these organisations have local, regional and national catchments and as a result will not match the geographical boundaries of the LLSCs. I fear the LSCs do not possess the necessary expertise to coordinate let alone manage these challenges which begs the question where is the expertise for this after all the changes that have occurred over the past few decades? With the extended remit of the Learning and Skills Councils an even wider range of organisations have been created such as Learning Partnerships with the statutory voluntary and community groups some of which cover local, regional and national catchments.

Innumerable initiatives.

One immediate problem in improving the effectiveness of labour market research and information is this disparate, confused and fragmented landscape. The Government has instituted innumerable initiatives to take forward its skills agenda but this prompts concern that there will be no clear policy on coordinating their worthy ambitions. The current climate is even more uncertain than in the past as a large number of factors are now in play that adds to the already complex and uncertain scene. Some of these factors are associated with the consequences of the emerging global economy and the ever-accelerating transformations brought about by the impact of the new technologies. The imperative for this country to compete internationally, increase its competitiveness, improve productivity levels across industry and commerce with the resultant increase in exports and its market share globally has always been important but never so much as now. The country continues to slip down the international leagues for example on productivity, competitiveness, qualification level of workforce and declining global market share.

Lost manufacturing base

In spite of the statements by the government the country has lost its manufacturing base and where there is success companies are now deciding to relocate to other parts of the world e.g. Dyson and most recently Avon Products. An interesting barometer of this country’s performance can be evidenced at container ports – the containers entering the country are full whilst those leaving are often empty. Perhaps the government could tax empty space and air to improve the balance of trade figures with an additional tariff for political hot air!? Skill shortages in wide ranges of employment areas are continually being identified and are no longer focussed on hi-tech areas. One of the real dangers of prolonged skills shortage in a particular area is that companies will relocate abroad, contract out or even worse go out of business.

The ever-changing profile and future nature of employment makes this already inexact science (or should it be an art?) even more important. The continued impact of the new technologies challenges traditional forms of employment resulting in very different ways employees are managed and deployed in the global economy and in companies. Multiple careers are now a reality and a job for life is fast vanishing and this leads to uncertainty among people about work identity. Very often people become quite rightly preoccupied over where the next job is coming from and often show little loyalty to their employers. As a result job and career instability is becoming more evident. Recent research has shown that company loyalty in this country now stands around 5%, the lowest in the world. Strategies over the past few decades involving downsizing and increased casualisation of the workforce and outsourcing have all been contributing factors.

Disillusioned retrain.

Many people are now employed on short-term/zero hour contracts and many are employed through third party agencies with often uncertain conditions of service and employment security. Also increasing career changes are at the initiative of highly skilled people themselves tired of the pressures, even if highly paid they opt out of their skills area and train for something else. This increasing turbulence, volatility and resultant uncertainty in the work place makes LMI even more difficult to interpret and possibly requires a new operating paradigm. Market research and labour market information has always required careful and intelligent use as many of its sources were historic and always subject to wide margins of error.Labour Market Intellence (LMI) was only one source of evidence in attempting to plan future employment patterns. One factor that has always limited the effectiveness and reliability of LMI is the slowness and inertia of the educational and training systems in this country. Too often the training, education and skills provided remain static and/or evolve slowly and as a result LMI has not been particularly useful. As the technologies and economies evolve the important equation between supply and demand becomes imbalanced. The balance between the supply of/and demand for certain skills and competences changes as a result of changes or transitions in the technologies and the economy very often the demand side experiences greater volatility than the supply side.

Historic provision unable to meet current demand.

Very often colleges and universities cannot meet these new skill demands because of their historic provision and the expertise of their staff. The validation and accreditation of new programmes of study can take up to two years at a time when the shelf-life of the knowledge and skills in many areas of work is now at six months. This fact requires a radical reappraisal of the more traditional forms of courses and programmes of study. Provision has to be delivered in small bites and be up to date and relevant not only to the learner but the employer. Providers need to form strong and effective partnerships with employers and employer organisations and be more prepared to develop and deliver bespoke programmes of study.

Over subscribed programmes.

Another important factor is associated with the ethics of choice by the prospective learner many of whom wish to pursue programmes that are already over supplied. Analysis of learner intentions particularly to the younger learner all too often reflects areas of employment that are already in balance in regard to supply and demand. Clearly personal choice must be respected but it does little to address skills shortage in key areas and this often introduces an interesting tension in any discussion on steering people into some areas of employment e.g. engineering, science and mathematics. Non-participation in post-16 education and training is a complex and multi-dimensional issue which can present real challenges to market research and successive government priorities. Not only is there a reluctance to study some areas but also dispositional factors often come into play such as attitudes, perceptions and expectations and the continued problems associated with finance, transport and childcare facilities.

Perceived uncertainty

The increasing uncertainty in the way people perceive the future of employment and the factors that appear that change their view of a particular area of employment can be illustrated by a few examples in teachers, GPs, HGV drivers and railway technicians.

Many teachers are leaving the profession because of increased bureaucracy and government intervention and interference and pupil behaviour, which deflects them from their primary purpose of teaching and facilitating effective learning. 75% of all GPs under the age of 30 are women and they quite rightly want to work part-time as do many of their male counter parts.

The government has set a target for the number of new doctors in terms of actual individuals but have not recognised that many of these wish be employed fractionally. Therefore the simplistic body count is inaccurate and now needs to be revised upward. This highlights the intervention of personal expectations from people that breaks with past practices and methods of planning employment projections.

Driver shortage due to government transport policies.

The example of HGV drivers illustrates a different factor in a skill shortage. Drivers are leaving the job because of the frustration of constant traffic problems on the roads of Britain and the outworking of the working time directive which will significantly reduce their earnings. There is now a growing shortage of experienced and qualified drivers.

Another growing shortage is in railway maintenance technicians and engineers because of the run down of the railways over the past few decades and the continued destruction of the engineering training programmes, which have led to the closure of many engineering departments in colleges.

The inevitable knee jerk response by the government is to blame the colleges and attempt to import overseas workers.

These few examples are attempting to show the often unexpected factors that suddenly appear in the planning of labour projections- many caused by government policies and/or individuals’ personal expectations from work.

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