Creating good work that improves future productivity and supports inclusive growth

On 2nd November the Work Foundation ran a conference in partnership with the OECD, Warwick University, and the Centre for Cities to discuss the key challenges facing the UK in building more quality jobs which provide individuals better employment opportunities to be more productive. It provided a great chance in the run up to the autumn budget to bring together a range of stakeholders from national government departments, cities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) as well as business, NGOs and research institutions to reflect on the most pressing priorities and what actions they could take working to overcome them.

The back drop to the event was provided by the Launch of an OECD report about Better Use of Skills in the Workplace – why it matters to productivity and local jobs, which the event organisers had been involved in.

This report is significant, because it focuses on the topic of skills utilisation and in particular the importance of creating good work that makes the best use of people and their talents in the workplace as a vital mechanism to improve future productivity and support inclusive growth.

The timing is important now in the context of the economic, employment, social and political challenges many countries across the globe currently face. Ongoing productivity problems and stagnant growth, are combining with deepening inequalities as the gains of economic recovery have not been evenly distributed. Working with businesses to ensure that they manage their businesses in ways that make better use if their employees skills is a key part of turning this situation around.

The research plays a crucial role progressing our collective understanding of what action can support better skills utilisation to maximise workplace and individual performance, and progression within the labour market. More specifically it offers insights about how this can be built into policy development thinking and implementation to support stronger local action amongst businesses working collectively with key partners as well as individually.

Traditional policy initiatives across OECD countries have placed more of a focus on the numbers of jobs created and boosting skills to support more people into work and hence better growth and social prosperity. Employment and skills interventions have also risked operating in silos, being too top-down driven, and designed and run independently of business activities, with significant challenges around employer engagement, especially amongst smaller businesses. Therefore it is of particular interest that this report begins to challenge the adequacy of traditional approaches.

Of course there is no silver bullet to enhance good work and effective skills utilisation, which will work in all circumstances. But by undertaking research and skills analysis across eight OECD and non-OECD countries the report aims to highlight examples of new approaches to conceptualising and designing economic development, employment and skills strategies and what are some of the key considerations to secure success. (Countries covered include the UK, Singapore, Korea, the US, Tasmania, Vietnam and Peru).

The examples highlight the need to support action on a number of fronts and through a mix of policies affecting areas such as: work organisation; job design; the take up of technology; innovation in operations and management as well as product development; employee-employer relations, human resource development practices and business strategies. Clearly too there is a need to build policy coherence across employment, skills, economic development and innovation policies nationally and locally and in a way that supports in particular greater collaboration and partnership working locally; thus strengthening local action.

The research outlines 6 factors critical to ensuring success including:

  • Skills utilisation should be identified as a common core priority across policies. Because tacking skills utilisation is not a single issue but could involve skills, economic development, innovation, and workplace relations, recognising it as a cross cutting policy concern seeks to ensure greater coherence and alignment in action operating at a macro and micro level and in multiple policy areas.
  • Leadership by employers and high levels of employer and worker engagement is essential. This ensures priorities are owned and valued by employers and any action taken is sustainable and whilst public funding can be used as a trigger to overcome inertia lasting employer engagement cannot be dependent on public subsidy.
  • Specialised, technical expertise is needed to secure employer buy-in and support networking and real lasting long term change. Raising awareness is not enough if employers do not have the capability or know-how to respond, especially smaller businesses. A range of respected partners and agencies play key roles to strengthen the working of local ecosystems and the spreading of best practice including anchor institutions, training providers, universities, trade and business associations, sectors bodies, professional bodies and trade unions.
  • Initiatives should be strategically targeted to where there is the greatest need and the most potential for adoption and impact, to maximise effectiveness and efficiency of action and to unlock the economies of scale which can extend the scale and reach of what is delivered. This emphasises a focus at the level of employer networks operating through respected communities of practice so that any action comes from a specific understanding of the challenges being faced by businesses locally and in turn what types of specialised support and action are appropriate to tackle them.
  • Multi-faceted interventions are needed targeted not only at individual workplaces but across local economies. Single shot or narrow interventions are unlikely to help to create the conditions to encourage businesses to recognise the value of creating good work and supporting better skills development and use of their people over the long term. Rather policy developments and local employment and skills strategies need to support an environment for more co-ordinated approaches which can build cumulatively over time across innovation, training, employment and economic development.

A key question for the UK now is how we can learn from this work and put it in to action in the UK?