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.

They’re all people, right?

Helen Timbrell, Volunteering & Participation Director for the National Trust, reflects on research on the management of volunteers conducted by CROWE’s Dr Jenna Ward and Professor Anne-marie Greene.

 If, like me, you’ve worked in volunteer management and leadership for a long time you will no doubt have come across colleagues who are of the view that organisations should manage staff and volunteers in the same way, because “they’re all people, right?”.  I strongly disagree with that.  Really strongly.  I mean, obviously they ARE people, but I think the way we manage them needs to be different.  And now I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some research that confirms that is the case.

At the National Trust we’ve been working with researchers from De Montfort University to explore the extent to which the management of volunteers is similar or different to the management of paid staff.

My favourite sentence from the research report is this one:  “We can, with confidence, argue that in practice, the management of volunteers within the National Trust is significantly different to the management of paid staff”.    Cue my smug face.

But why does this matter?  If I knew that anyway, what’s the value of research to prove it?  Surely I didn’t just support a research project to prove myself right?   Well, no.  For me the real value of the research has been in identifying where and how it’s different, prompting us to think hard about whether we are providing enough of the right type of support and training for the people we ask to manage volunteers.

The research (which was based on interviews, observations and diaries of activities at two of our properties) identified five key areas of difference described as:

  • Performance Management
  • Communication
  • Task Differentiation
  • Trust and Fear v Autonomy and Creativity
  • Emotional Labour

Information on all five is available in the full report – email me if you’d like a copy – but three key things really resonated for me:


Misplaced protection of volunteers

Often staff spoke of not sharing all the information about developments at the property or in the Trust because they didn’t want to bore and/or burden the volunteers.  Similarly often they didn’t ask them to get involved in the jobs they really needed a hand with because they thought the volunteers wouldn’t like those jobs.  In contrast volunteers often talked about the frustration of being kept in the dark and/or of being able to see what needed to be done but not being able to get involved.  The evidence, and my experience, suggests we are less likely to make these well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful assumptions about paid staff: we are less hesitant in our communications and braver in our asks, perhaps because we feel we have a “right” to do so?


The need for real dialogue

This links to the need for regular, open dialogue between staff and volunteers.  Even where communication was happening it was often one way, with much less space to hear from volunteers or have a genuine dialogue.  One of the factors in this was the sheer size of the volunteer teams our managers are working with:  they spoke of a sense of an impossible task when faced with hundreds of volunteers, which feels very different from working with much smaller staff teams.  Perhaps another factor was assumptions about the quality of the dialogue they would be able to have with a volunteer: self-limiting thoughts about how much value a volunteer might really be able to add.


Working in the “unregulated emotional landscape”

Perhaps the most powerful findings were in relation to the way in which managing volunteers is a much more emotional experience than the management of paid staff.  Without the presence of a contract (and associated norms of deference, compliance and control/authority) the behaviour of volunteers was often less constrained, with more regular, open and strong expressions of feelings.  Often gloriously positive but sometimes negative “outbursts” arose as volunteers felt free to not think about biting their tongue or toeing the line.  These strong expressions of feelings coupled with the size of the volunteer team sometimes created incredibly emotionally charged working environments for volunteer managers, most of whom are managing volunteers as part of a much wider set of responsibilities.


All of this has made me think hard about how well we support and train our volunteer managers:  are we focussing on the right things?  Are we honest enough about what’s involved?  In the sector we run training on how to recruit and select volunteers, how to develop new forms of volunteering, how to attract a more diverse audience but do we really do enough to equip volunteer managers to operate confidently, in true partnership with volunteers, in the much more emotional landscape?


How much of our specific volunteer management training focusses on participatory ways of working, partnership and resilience?  How to deal with difficult situations not from a process perspective but as a human being, standing in front of another human being who is shouting at you in a room full of forty others?  Do we support our volunteer managers to think about how they use their body language, their tone of voice, their eye contact to respond in these situations?  Do we ensure the managers of our volunteer managers understand the demands they are under and in turn provide effective support?   In the National Trust right now I think the answer is no:  we do a lot of great things to support our volunteer managers but there is clearly so much more we can do.   And we need to lead that as a volunteering team, because they might be people, but it’s not the same.

Helen Timbrell

Volunteering & Participation Director

National Trust


DMU Research Team

Dr Jenna Ward @d20jat

Prof Anne-marie Greene @ProfGreeneDMU


This blog was originally posted on the Thoughtful Thursdays blog at

Join us on the 13th October 2016 live on Twitter #ttvolmgrs for more on why managing volunteers is different to managing paid staff


A link to the full research report can be found here

Informal Economy/ Informal Work: Challenges for Industrial Relations

 Industrial relations has predominantly focussed on the formal workplace and formal institutions of representation and neglected the informal economy/work. Informal work, instead of being a transitory phenomenon, has been a predominant form of work in the Global South and is increasingly prevalent in the Global North (Chang 2013; Kalleberg 2009). As work continues to reach beyond the formal workplace and into the informal economy – into the community, household and the realm of social reproduction – institutional forms of industrial relations face a challenge. While Organising and Social Movement literatures address this challenge, conceptual and methodological issues remain underexplored in industrial relations.


Initially conceptualised as the ‘informal sector’ (Hart 1973), since the 1990s the term ‘informal economy’ has focussed attention on a broad and heterogeneous type of employment and enterprises that are unregulated and unprotected (Portesand Castells 1989; Hussmans 2005; Agarwala 2009). The expanded definition of the informal economy sees it as segmented into a range of informal firms and employment relationships i.e. self-employed with assets and employees, survival self-employed (own account operators and unpaid family labour), wage labour, casual wage labour, domestic labour and industrial outworkers/homeworkers. As Breman (2013) puts it ‘there is not one but a variety of regimes of informal labour, not all vicious to the same extent. These also differ in coping behaviour and resilience, some segments being more successful than others’. In sum, informality has multiple levels of exploitation as well as of forms and avenues of resistance.


Accompanying this recognition of the permanence of the informal economy is also one that recognises its significance to capitalist development. The relationship between the formal and informal economy is seen as a continuum of economic relations of production, distribution and employment where firms and workers move along the continuum or can operate simultaneously in both (Chen 2007; Lerche 2010; Harriss-White 2010).There is a recognition of diverse socio-economic relations that can result from the interaction of the formal and informal economy.  Agarwala(2008) captures this in her relational understanding of the informal economy where informal workers are intertwined with the formal economy, society and the state through structures, networks and political institutions. Informality is now fused within formerly formal parts of the economy, through outsourcing and supply chains.


My research in a new industrialising region in North India shows how manufacturing firms, domestic as well as multinational, tap into and structure the informal economy. Over a span of ten years they have reduced their permanent workforce while employing three times the number of informal workers. These are segmented into contract, casual, company casual and apprentice workers and often fulfil the jobs of a full-time production worker inside the firm. In addition, firms draw upon informal workers through outsourcing and long supply chains both in the textile and the automotive sector. As in earlier industrial sociology, neighbourhood comes into the firm and the firm reaches into the neighbourhood. This blurs the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction when analysing control and contest. Trade unions are unable to respond to the needs of informal workers or formulate a strategy to counter the state-capital restructuring of work.


For industrial relations, the challenge is how to conceptualise these interlinkages between the formal-informal work/economy and how to organise disparate, dispersed and often mobile informal workplaces and workers. This requires a rethink of definitions and conceptualisation of labour, framing options, organisational forms and strategies, and types of struggles for labour in spheres of production as well as reproduction. ‘New’ questions, with long history, have arisen. Is labour a mere production input or ‘social’ labour? Is work only in the sphere of production or is it all the work that helps in capitalist accumulation? Do we need to conceptualise labour as an actor, or only as collective actor? Can, or indeed should, the informal be ‘formalised’? Why is informal economy/work so difficult to regulate? What role do inter-firm relations play in informality? Do we need to go beyond institutional forms of industrial relations? What are the methodological challenges in researching the informal economy/work?


One of the many ways forward is Bernstein’s (2007) ‘classes of labour’. The approach provides an analytical framework that is flexible enough to capture the diversity of employment in formal-informal economy. Another possibility is the integrated framework of social reproduction (Luxton 2006; Ferguson and McNally 2015) that captures social relations of capitalism more comprehensively. Such approaches are sensitive to varied economic survival strategies of different groups of informal workers and the diverse means of resistance.


A more differentiated understanding of work and labour, and links between oppression and exploitation and production and consumption may help in framing strategies to address the challenges informal economy/work poses to industrial relations and to the labour movement.

Anita Hammer is a member of CROWE at Leicester Business School, De Montfort University, UK. Her research focuses on the Global South and examines the development trajectories of new industrial regions, changing patterns of work and employment and the role of the informal economy



Social exclusion and labour rights in the banlieues of Paris, Part II

Trade union support for undocumented migrant workers is taking place in an atmosphere of growing stigmatisation and social tension.

Heather Connolly

Last month I returned to the banlieues of Paris on a research visit, four months after the November attacks, and during the week of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22nd March.  Whilst in Paris issues of social division and community cohesion inevitably dominated political debates and press headlines.


Anecdotally, public reaction in the mainstream media in France in the days after the Brussels attacks, suggested a lack of understanding of past and present French (and European) immigration and the citizenship status of ethnic minorities from the banlieues.  Calls were made by some members of the public to send the terrorists, many of whom had French or Belgian nationality, ‘back home’.  This sentiment has been somewhat fuelled by François Hollande’s proposals, as a direct response to the November 2015 attacks, to make controversial changes to the constitution to strip militants convicted of terror attacks of their French nationality (proposals which have now been dropped).


Other important contextualising factors feeding political debates and public perceptions around immigration and social exclusion include the current and emerging tensions surrounding the migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and restrictions of movement and increased police powers as a result of France’s continuing ‘state of emergency’ (état d’urgence).


As was the case in the Paris attacks, the terrorists in Belgium grew up in the suburbs of Brussels, with high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst second and third generation youths of immigrant origin.


Immigration flows to France are often linked into debates on models of integration and patterns of social exclusion of migrants.  France’s assimilationist model has in many ways failed in relation to the integration of past flows of immigrants.  As a result second and third generations of immigrant origin find it difficult to access employment and often remain trapped in the banlieues of Paris.


I was in Paris to follow up on my research on trade union responses to immigrants and those known as the sans papiers (undocumented workers) (which Part I of this blog explored), and found a somewhat depressing picture emerging.  Immigrants and especially the sans papiers are increasingly being stigmatised and placed under restrictions while trying to live and work in France.  This situation isn’t being helped by the current political debates mentioned above.


Signs initially looked better for the sans papiers when in 2012 the circulaire de regularisation, which sets out guidance and defined sets of conditions for administrators processing regularisation claims was introduced in response to growing unrest among sans papiers workers.  Trade unions, particularly the CGT, have been an important resource for the sans papiers in fighting for criteria for regularisation and in making sure they are applied, even though the circulaire has no legal status and doesn’t give automatic rights to work permits.  The strategy seems to be working and since 2010 the union has obtained some 10,000 regularisations of migrants.


At the same time there have been increasing sanctions on employers found to be employing undocumented migrants, with two circulaires in 2013 against illegal work and against irregular immigration.  Also, there are some who are critical of the circulaire de regularisation, claiming that there have been fewer regularisations per year since its introduction. During last month’s field work with my French colleague Dr Sylvie Contrepois, one undocumented Senegalese worker, who had found regular work in France for 24 years, suddenly found himself without work as a result of the greater restrictions on employers, and without recourse to any rights to unemployment benefit or state aid.


The CGT, one of the largest French trade unions has provided a ‘permanence’ (advice service) for the sans papiers in the banlieues of Paris since 2014.  The union has between 70 and 80 sans papiers attending the ‘permanence’ every week with the aim being to help the migrants to obtain work permits, and the immediate aim to protect them from having problems with employers and the police.


The advice given to the sans papiers demonstrates the uneasy nature of accessing labour rights as an undocumented worker in France.  One Senegalese union activist we spoke to (still a sans papier himself) explained that many of the migrants did not understand the process of accessing their rights in France.  There were heated exchanges between the sans papiers and the union activists advising the migrants, with some suggesting that it was particularly the Bangladeshi migrants who weren’t so aware of the process for obtaining papers.  In asking what the process was we discovered that it was important first to obtain fake papers, then find a job, stay in that job for a certain amount of time, collect some pay slips and then come to the union, who would then be able to help with their case for a work permit.  The union was able to draw on the conditions set out in circulaire de regularisation to make the case for regularisation, even where workers were working with fake papers.


By offering a service to undocumented workers, in spite of its service-based appearance, the union aims to identify and call out poor employer practices and force them to apply regulations.  The broader political goal is to fight illegal work, prevent social dumping and to encourage self-organising and future mobilisations of sans papiers.  The union also hopes for the greater integration and involvement of the sans papiers within the wider union.  Whether trade unions are able to build and sustain this kind of solidarity and action remains a key challenge, but an important one in such uncertain times.


Heather Connolly is Senior Lecturer in Leicester Business School at De Montfort University and a member of the Heather-Connolly-100Contemporary Research on Organisations, Work and Employment (CROWE) group and the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA).

This post was originally posted on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield.