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Our new reports highlight training as the key route out of low pay

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November 16, 2020 | Alexandra Sufit


Two new studies from the Social Mobility Commission highlight the importance of in-work training to progress workers out of low pay and improve social mobility.

Together, these two reports show how policy makers and employers can work together to get the most out of workplace training – benefiting individual workers, business and society at large.

A substantial proportion of the population (predominantly from lower socio-economic backgrounds) is stuck in low paid occupations. This can have profound effects on social mobility and can reverberate down the generations. The children of low income parents tend to do less well at school, are less likely to attend university, more likely to be unemployed, less likely to work in a professional occupation and more likely themselves to remain stuck in low paid jobs.

Learning Ladders – progressing out of low pay, examines the links between workplace training and moving people up the pay ladder. The report shows how in-work training can be a powerful tool to break the vicious cycle that traps people in low pay, and so help more people improve their chances of a better future.

The study makes the case for policy interventions focused in the right areas. And it shows how business can gain significant benefit from investing in a learning culture that is targeted at those who most need it.

Some of the key findings from this report are:

  • Age, gender, background, geographical location, children and caring responsibilities are all factors that contribute to being trapped in low paid jobs. However, participating in more training significantly increases the chances of escaping low pay.
  • Those who need training most are the least likely to receive it – low paid workers with low qualifications, are significantly less likely to undertake training, compared with those with parents from more privileged backgrounds.
  • Government investment should focus on ensuring low paid workers have access to adult education and training, through initiatives such as the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee.
  • The report also draws on prior research which shows that investing in staff training can have positive effects on the bottom line.
  • It recommends that employers consider how to expand training opportunities to staff who currently have the least access to them.

By targeting investment at the lowest paid, who experience the greatest obstacles to progression, we can break the inter-generational cycle of employment stagnation.

Increasing in-work training and progression for frontline workers, takes a closer look at three very important industries (retail, industrial and hospitality), where upward mobility of low skilled workers is particularly poor. The study delves into the barriers that exist to progression, and the interventions that organisations, with the help of government, can make to offer better prospects to frontline staff.

So, why does it go wrong?

  • Difficult economic circumstances can lead to a relentless focus on short-term profit, at the expense of the longer-term benefits of investing in staff training and progression.
  • Frontline staff can be seen as replaceable, which means training opportunities get targeted towards more senior – and often more privileged – management.
  • Communication between management and frontline staff is limited, and not focused on upskilling.
  • Frontline staff are often juggling other life priorities and therefore do not see their job as a career. If they are to progress, they need access to training that is appropriate and fits in with their lives.

What does it look like when an organisation has a strong culture of training and progression?

  • At a senior level, and throughout the organisation, there is a recognition of the positive effects on staff satisfaction, retention and productivity. As well as the brand reputation that a commitment to social progression brings.
  • Management engages in dialogue with all their workforce, to ensure training schemes are communicated and support systems are in place to equip frontline workers to take advantage of progression opportunities.
  • They embed, within the organisation’s culture, the belief that training is a key part of what it means to be an employee.
  • They ring-fence a budget to provide development opportunities at all levels, and prioritise management accountability for staff progression and continued education.

The report contains a number of fascinating case studies. From building companies to public sector providers, supermarkets to coffee shop chains, these show organisations on a continuum. From those where staff development and progression are in their DNA, to those who see frontline workers as the churn of human capital.

The current crisis is only strengthening the case for re-training and up-skilling, particularly among low paid workers. It is already being driven by technological advances and societal change.

These two timely studies provide invaluable insight into how organisations and government can work together, in a bid to develop well thought-out interventions and practices. These should aim to overturn any entrenched structures that are too often trapping our frontline workforce in low pay, from one generation to the next.

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