The vast majority of low and semi-skilled workers are in the same roles now as they were five years ago, according to new market research [1] commissioned by The Open University.

The study identifies two fifths (42%) of the UK workforce today identify themselves as ‘Not In Skilled Employment’ (NISKE) [2] – the equivalent of over 13 million people across the country [3]. More than four in five (84%) of this group were also in the same low and semi-skilled positions in 2012, underlining the issues this group faces in developing better skills and moving up the career ladder.

The study warns that a strong core of NISKEs are effectively stuck in their positions in the workforce with limited prospects for social mobility, with women significantly more likely to fall into the NISKE cohort than men (52% versus 34%). This may be because women are more likely to work part time [4].

It seems that to date the NISKE group has fewer opportunities to develop in work – a finding echoed by the recent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices [5], which found that those at the bottom of the labour market are disproportionally affected.

Currently a third of (32%) NISKE workers don’t have access to workplace training, compared to around one in five (22%) of those in skilled roles [6]. Similarly, half (50%) of those Not In Skilled Employment have no career progression opportunities at their place of employment. Among skilled workers this figure drops to one in four (27%).

With 9.2 million low-skilled workers expected to chase 3.1 million low-skilled jobs by 2024 [7], the UK could see a huge surplus of low-skilled workers, while at the same time striving for a higher skills economy to compete on the global stage. At a time of increasing uncertainty, where concerns about a growing skills gap and lack of productivity affect most industries, the study underlines the need for investment in skills development to unlock greater potential and enable more individuals to adapt to the changing economic, political and technological climate.

Some organisations, such as the IPPR, have recommended introducing personal learning and retraining allowances to help low skilled workers boost their skills [8]. However, when it comes to gaining new skills, there are many societal issues why some individuals embrace opportunities more than others. The study found apathy to be a significant factor, with NISKEs notably less likely than their better-skilled peers to want to build up their skill sets (43% versus 56%). While a lack of awareness of the training options available is affecting one in 10 (10%).

David Willett100x100David Willett, Director at The Open University says: “The UK is in the grips of a skills crisis lagging behind its international competitors and this is blighting individual and business potential. To compete on a global level the UK needs to shift to a higher skills economy, but that means the livelihoods of many NISKE workers are under threat - unless we invest in training staff and unlock greater potential. 

"Employers urgently need to invest in developing an agile workforce that can embrace change and meet new challenges. Adult education and training at all ages and levels has a role to play in raising productivity, narrowing the skills gap as well as enabling greater social mobility and enhancing progression into well-paid jobs. The Open University is working with a number of employers across the private, public and third sectors to increase workplace skills and develop a culture of lifelong learning through initiatives such as degree apprenticeships.” 

The study follows recent market research commissioned by The Open University which found the skills gap is costing UK businesses more than £2 billion a year in higher salaries, recruitment costs and temporary staffing, and the challenge of finding talent with the right skills means that businesses need to change their approach to recruitment, development and retention.

About The Open University (OU): The largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.8 million students and has almost 170,000 current students, including more than 15,000 overseas.

Over 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and four out of five FTSE100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

In the latest assessment exercise for university research (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), nearly three quarters (72%) of The Open University’s research was assessed as 4 or 3 star – the highest ratings available – and awarded to research that is world-leading or internationally excellent.  The Open University is unique among UK universities, having both an access mission and demonstrating research excellence.

The OU has a 42 year partnership with the BBC and has moved from late-night lectures in the 1970s to co-producing around 35 prime-time series a year such as The Hunt, Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, Full Steam Ahead and The Big C and Me on TV, and Inside Science, The Bottom Line and Thinking Allowed on Radio 4. Our OU viewing and listening events attracted 250m people in the UK last year which prompted more than 780k visits to the OU’s free learning website, OpenLearn.

Regarded as the UK’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units, as well as games, videos and academic articles and has reached audiences of up to 9.8 million across a variety of online formats including OpenLearn, YouTube and iTunes U.

[1] Online research was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 4000 UK adults between 19th and 21st April, by ICM Market Research

[2] NISKE is defined by respondents self-identifying their jobs as ‘low’ and ‘semi-skilled / lower middle skilled’, as per ONS classifications. The figure is also in line with latest ONS UK Labour Market release data

[3] According to ONS Labour Market Statistics (July 2017), there are currently 32.01 million workers in the UK. 42% of workers are not in skilled employment, therefore 13.44 million workers are NISKEs

[4] According to ONS Labour Market Statistics (July 2017), 41% per cent of the current female workforce work part-time, in comparison to just 13% of the male workforce

[5] Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices (2017)

[6] ‘Skilled’ workers represent a combination of ‘high’ and ‘upper middle skilled’ workers, in accordance with ONS classifications, based on self-identification by respondents.

[7] Local Government Association/Learning and Work Institute (2017) Work Local: Our vision for an integrated and devolved employment and skills service

[8] Institute for Public Policy Research (2017) Another lost decade? Building a skills system for the economy of the 2030s provides the following recommendations:

  • Introducing a ‘Personal Learning Credit’ worth up to £700 a year for low-paid, low-skill workers to help people invest in their future careers
  • Introducing a ‘Personal Retraining Allowance’ of £2000 to support low skilled worked made redundant to return to the labour market

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