Better paid and educated workers are better for the economy and inequality comes with many costs.
Five million UK workers are employed in low-paid jobs and the largest group feeling poverty is made up of families with at least one adult in paid work. Official figures miss out the most exploited workers, who include immigrants, young people and women, working illegally in the ‘underground’ economy.
Most people trapped by in-work poverty have not gone on to better paid jobs in the last ten years but some have been successful and there are good examples of effective workplace learning. These include Unionlearn initiatives and projects such as the longstanding ‘Return to Learn’ programme run by the Workers’ Educational Association and Unison.
Technology and globalisation is altering the labour market so much that planning for current job roles is short-sighted. Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, has said that, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set…. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.” Policy debate and planning must move beyond today’s skills for today’s jobs and prepare for a fall in available employment for the people who are furthest from well-paid work.
There are at least three main challenges. Support is needed to help low-paid workers to progress into better paid and more secure jobs. We need to recognise that the pool of adults without secure work is likely to grow, with an impact on the public purse as well as on individual lives. Extended working ages and later entitlement to state pensions reinforce the need for more adult learning. Policy decisions need to address the learning and skills needs of adults who are in the workforce now if we are to tackle these issues.
Future jobs are likely to need digital, technical, creative, research and development skills. Meeting these needs seems a tall order in the wake of recent reports on levels of adult literacy and numeracy as well as on poverty and social mobility. A lack of applicable skills, confidence and prospects will have a knock-on effect on our society, economy and future public spending unless we take action.
Policy makers need to identify the gaps between future skills demands and current levels – and then to work out how we can bridge them. We need to understand the barriers to adult learning and to apply our knowledge of strategies that work. Obstacles include unpredictable work patterns, caring responsibilities and lack of information and networking with people already in education. Financial constraints, including the costs of transport or online connectivity, also deter workers who are paid below a living wage.
Community learning has a particular role in engaging people who are otherwise unlikely to get involved in education and also in campaigning for better working conditions. It acts as a catalyst and a connector as well as having value in its own right. It builds on the understanding that adult learning journeys are complex and individual and that people’s needs, talents, interests, motivation, opportunities and access to learning vary.
Affordable, accessible and relevant community learning encourages adults to take their first steps back into education in their neighbourhood or workplace. It provides essential and flexible support with networks for progression. Community outreach work, learning champions and union learning representatives are all shown to be successful at engaging new learners.
The quality and qualities of teaching, learning and assessment for adults are critical to success. Effective community learning tailors courses to suit adults’ requirements and is run in partnerships so that progression to further learning can be organic. Community Learning Trusts have an important role in this, as should Local Enterprise Partnerships, although community learning’s role as a route to further education is not recognised sufficiently. We need to raise awareness.
Trust, partnership and networks linking policy makers, funders, employers, learning providers and the general public are essential to make sure that no low-paid or unemployed adult is isolated from accessible and attractive learning opportunities.
Joined up adult learning strategies are essential if adults are to know how to join up and can be inspired to continue their learning and development for more rewarding work.
This article was first published in a special free edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning – “Poverty, work and low pay – The role of skills”. A copy of the full publication can be found at http://shop.niace.org.uk/al-extra-poverty-work-pay.html.