From education to employment

81% Public service workers overwhelmingly keen to learn new skills

Public service workers ready to learn to ease redundancy fears, says UNISON

A third of public service workers are worried they’ll lose their jobs due to technological innovation or government cuts, according to a UNISON survey published today (Thursday).

But one in ten feel additional training has protected them from the threat of redundancy, with staff feeling more secure in their jobs because of the new skills they’ve acquired.

The findings, from a skills survey of more than 38,000 public sector workers, reveal that a third (34%) believe it ‘likely’ their jobs might go in the next 36 months. But the workforce is overwhelmingly keen to learn, with more than four fifths (81%) reporting that ‘learning is important to my self-esteem’.

Staff in sectors hardest hit by cuts were the most pessimistic, with half of local government workers (50%) worried they could be made redundant. More than two fifths of further and higher education employees (44%), and just under a half (49%) of utilities staff – who generally work in call centres – were worried about job security.

Over half (57%) of the respondents highlighted automation as the main risk to their jobs, mainly because they don’t have the skills to keep pace with the changing workplace.

Staff with low or no qualifications were twice as likely (30%) as those with the highest qualifications to identify a gap in their digital and management skills. They were also more likely to have issues with literacy (11%) and numeracy (18%).

Employers’ reluctance to provide staff training was frequently mentioned in the survey. Police and justice workers were among the most dissatisfied with the lack of training on offer, with just under three quarters (74%) highlighting issues with employers as a barrier to training. 

Speaking about the research, UNISON head of learning Teresa Donegan said:

“Nine years of austerity has created a culture within the public services where employers are reluctant to invest in the future. 

“It’s clear staff know what they need from training and are willing to put in the hard work to improve their chances of avoiding redundancy and securing promotion. But chronic under investment and a short term ‘let’s just get by’ attitude from bosses is storing up problems for the future.

“To avoid a widening public sector skills gap, government and employers need to invest in training staff at every level. It’s crucial staff can get access to lifelong learning opportunities to make sure they’ve the skills to meet the challenges of the changing workplace.

“Labour’s recent commitment to support paid time off for employees to learn new skills, together with the promise to improve careers advice for adults, would be a major step forward.”

Suzy (not her real name) said:

“I work in a secondary school that talks about encouraging continuous professional development, but it’s all focused on teachers. Very little is provided for teaching assistants or admin. When I started my role, I was part class based, part administration. Due to a lack of budget my role is now [purely] administration with no class time. There has also been a loss of several jobs over the few years I’ve worked here. My fear is that as budgets are cut, there will be a bigger loss of classroom support – which will affect future pupils – as the quality of support will not be there.”

This is one of the largest non-governmental skills surveys in Europe and provides a detailed picture of public service workers’ skills, aspirations and concerns.

The Skills for the Future Survey was carried by the University of Exeter between November 2018 and February 2019.

Almost 39,000 UNISON members were surveyed in the largest skills audit in Europe to establish the future skills needs of public sector employees:

For the past nine years public sector staff have been battling to deliver services against a backdrop of swingeing cuts across the sector.
While the impact of austerity on employee numbers, pay and morale are well documented, its effect on the public sector skills gap is less well known.
The results show austerity is not only affecting the workers of today, but its legacy of a weakened further education sector and the reluctance of employers to invest in staff training, could have far-reaching implications for the future.



Changes within the workplace:

  • Around a third (34%) felt it was ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that their position would be made redundant in the next three years
  • More than four in five (84%) had observed at least one form of workplace change – such as a major restructuring or redundancies – during the last three years
  • Just under half (45%) had seen a reduction in the number of people doing the same jobs as them
  • More than two-fifths (44%) had seen the introduction of new technologies 
  • Half the local government workers surveyed thought their position was at risk of redundancy, with similarly high rates in utilities (49%), and further and higher education (44%)
  • Just under three fifths (57%) felt technological automation was putting public sector jobs at risk
  • Workers over 50 (60%) and those working in utilities (69%) and further education (61%) were most likely to feel this way.
  • A majority (57%) reported feeling worried about the future of work as it was likely to affect their jobs
  • Just over a fifth (22%) felt confident, while 14% were uninterested and just 7% excited about the future.
  • Just over three fifths (61%) of workers in utilities and 61% of local government were the most worried about the future.
  • Overall 55% of respondents were either ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with their jobs.
  • Workers in social care (51%) and London (50%) were the least likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

Skills audit

Although respondents on the whole felt they had the were appropriate skills for their roles, there are some persistent skill gaps.

  • Skills deficiencies were most reported in respect of ‘computer and digital skills’ (14%) and ‘management or supervisory skills’ (18%)
  • Those with no or low qualifications were more than twice as likely as those with the highest qualifications to report a deficiency in ‘computer and digital skills’ and ‘management and supervisory skills’ and were more than five times as likely to report deficiencies in literacy and numeracy.
  • A lack of skills and/or confidence in literacy or numeracy had stopped just under a fifth (17%) of respondents from applying for promotion.

Barriers to learning

  • More than half (52%) of staff who hadn’t done any training in the past 12 months thought work-related training would have been useful
  • Issues with employers, including not being willing to provide additional training, were more frequently reported as barriers than personal factors such as ‘difficulty finding time for training’.
  • Almost half (48%) those who were not learning for their current job believe it didn’t harm their employment prospects
  • One third (31%) believed their employment prospects would suffer through a lack of training.
  • People with a disability were most likely to feel a lack of training had a negative effect on their employment prospects.

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