Skills in the age of over-qualification



Caroline Lloyd and CROWE’s Jonathan Payne summarise their major international research project on skills in service work, recently published as a monograph by Oxford University Press



The service economy, in which most people earn their living, has been central to debates around the future of work. Some see the future for advanced economies in terms of a more ‘knowledge-based’ economy, in which more people can look forward to ‘good’ high skilled, high wage jobs, while others point to new forms of Taylorism, the persistence of low skill, low wage work and labour markets that are becoming increasingly polarized. There are, however, widespread concerns that many countries now face challenges in terms of ‘over-qualification’ and ‘skills wastage’. How then can we make better use of skills that workers already have? What can be done to develop ‘more and better jobs’? And what are implications for the way we think about the role and purpose of education? These are vital questions for anyone concerned with social and economic progress, which we seek to address in our new book, Skills in the Age of Over-qualification: Comparing Service Sector Work in Europe (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Our starting point is that an international comparative approach is vital. Too often national policy debates rein in possibilities by assuming that some jobs are simply the way they are and cannot be redesigned or made better. Comparing jobs across countries can help in terms of highlighting alternative possibilities as well as potential constraints. The specific question we ask in the book is whether particular jobs are different across countries or not, focusing primarily on work organisation and skills, while also taking into account broader aspects of job quality. In doing so, we wanted to build upon existing comparative studies of manufacturing jobs and low wage work to explore these questions in relation to service jobs. Specifically, what role do national institutions, sector dynamics and firms play in shaping how skills are formed and the way jobs are designed?

We focus on three occupations (vocational teacher, fitness instructor and café worker) in three countries (the UK, Norway and France). The jobs correspond roughly to professional, intermediate and entry-level positions, and the countries selected are widely viewed as ‘neo-liberal’, ‘coordinated’ and ‘state-regulated’ economies.  In total, 245 in-depth interviews were conducted across the three countries between 2009 and 2012. These took the form of interviews with key industry stakeholders, along with detailed workplace case studies involving interviews with those doing the job and their immediate supervisors and managers.

The evidence indicates that there are differences in the way that jobs can be designed and that choices are available to organisations in the way they organise work. For example, the inspections and intense managerial monitoring, faced by vocational teachers in England and Wales, are not a feature of vocational teachers’ work in France and Norway. For fitness instructors and café workers a more complex pattern emerges. French instructors are required to be more highly qualified by law, have more autonomy in the job, and yet also face high levels of work intensity. In Norway, the job is unregulated in terms of qualification requirements, while the UK uses a voluntary register of exercise professionals which guarantees minimum entry level qualifications.  Café work emerges as a relatively low skill job, requiring little training, in all three countries. And yet again there are differences, with those in Norway for example having more discretion when it comes to making products.

If you are worker in Norway in any of these jobs you are substantially better paid, even when factoring in differences in the cost of living.  Job security is also different. Vocational teachers in France and Norway are typically employed on secure, full-time contracts, while fitness instructors and café assistants are provided with guaranteed hours and more regular shift patterns. All three groups in the UK are more likely to be exposed to insecure work and involuntary part-time or variable hours’ contracts. There are of course limits to how far some jobs, like routine café work for example, can be redesigned or upskilled. Indeed, the persistence of relatively low skill work suggests that countries may need to think more carefully about the role of education in preparing people for personal development and life in general, irrespective of what jobs they end up doing in the labour market. Countries like France and Norway already provide vocational learners with a wider curriculum of general education compared with that on offer to their counterparts in the UK. Finally, even where jobs are difficult to redesign substantially, there is more scope to improve pay and conditions through higher minimum wages, more extensive collective bargaining and higher out-of-work benefits. Possibilities exist, but realising them requires challenging market-based orthodoxy and, more importantly, concerted action and societal pressure for change.

Caroline Lloyd is Professor at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University and an Associate Fellow at the centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance. Her research focuses on the relationships between product markets, labour markets, work organisation and skills.

Jonathan Payne is Reader in Employment Studies at CROWE-DMU. His research interests and publications encompass the political economy of skill, vocational education and training policy, the changing meaning of ‘skill’, workplace innovation, and international comparative studies of work organisation and job quality.