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by Kathryn Telling
26th November 2020

There is mounting concern about the employment crisis for those working in hospitality, retail and leisure. These sectors have been some of the worst hit by lockdown restrictions, with young workers especially affected by reduced hours and redundancy. There has been fierce competition for jobs in the hospitality sector, with some suggesting that applicants should instead apply for social care work, where competition is less strong.

While rarely made explicitly, this suggestion assumes that there is a group of (low-paid) workers that can be classed as ‘unskilled’, who should be able to transition relatively easily into very different jobs. In this article I try to bring to light, and challenge, the indirect claim that there are workers who do not have skills, and that such workers are somehow interchangeable. I also ask that, rather than responding with incredulity towards what are perceived as irrational decisions taken by other people, those who work outside hospitality and social care take seriously the rational, skills-based reasons workers give for not moving into completely new spheres of work.

Much has been made, rightly, of the recent government-backed (and hastily withdrawn) IT training advert suggesting that a ballet dancer’s next job ‘could be in cyber’. At a time when many in the arts and culture industries have lost their livelihoods, a cajolement to abandon one’s skills and passions to retrain in a completely different sector is deeply insensitive, and dismissive of the specific skills of creative workers. Less has been said, however, about the active de-skilling of a range of other – perhaps less visible – workers during the crisis. In this article I argue that treating hospitality workers and social carers as essentially interchangeable is an equally problematic minimisation of both sets of workers’ skills.

Why don’t they just…?

The recent Resolution Foundation report Jobs, Jobs, Jobs presented invaluable data about changes in work and unemployment during the COVID-19 crisis. A key finding was that those who had lost jobs in hospitality, retail and leisure were continuing to apply to similar roles, despite the strong competition the crisis had created within these sectors.

Discussing the report on Radio 4’s Today programme, former Universities Minister and Resolution Foundation president David Willetts argued that we must find ways to encourage these unemployed people to apply instead where workers are actually needed: ‘What is very frustrating is that many young people are applying for these jobs in leisure when there are very few vacancies. There are actually quite a few vacancies in social care; but there are fewer job applications [there].’ Although he went on to note the importance of re-skilling to ensure workers could transition between sectors, the tone is nonetheless one of frustration. Why can’t people behave more rationally, and apply in social care, where the jobs are?

While the recommendations of the Resolution Foundation’s report are largely progressive, the tone is likewise, at times, one of surprise and even bafflement when presented with unemployed hospitality, retail and leisure workers’ application choices. Like parents reproaching their children about poor decision making, David Willetts and the report’s authors aren’t angry – just disappointed.

It is discouraging to find that although care workers are in short supply, the health, care and social work sector is only the ninth (out of 20) most popular destination for those coming from hospitality, leisure and other retail’ (emphasis added).

Surprisingly, just over a fifth … of those looking for work indicated that [they] would look in the hardest-hit sectors, such as leisure’ (emphasis added).

there is little sign of an understanding of major sectoral shifts shaping job-search behaviour. One-fifth … of all those looking for work indicated they would look for vacancies in the leisure sector despite the fact that the leisure sector had the fewest listed vacancies of all major industry categories.’ (emphases added).

Surprise isn’t an uncommon response to worker decisions which don’t appear to align with labour market conditions. But precisely whose decisions are we baffled by here? I would suggest that it is other people (that is, people who are ‘not like me’) who are here constructed as irrational disappointments by politicians and academics.

Other people’s jobs

Debates about work are closely linked to debates about education: how we as a society assign worth to different types of jobs relates to how we value the education and training that leads to them. Within educational debates, the term ‘other people’s children’ is sometimes used to refer critically to a position that holds that vocational and academic forms of education are equally important, while simultaneously encouraging one’s own children to follow the academic track.

The advocacy of educational segregation in which young people are streamed into academic and vocational tracks (often accompanied with a view that fewer of them should be attending university) is frequently justified with the panacea of ‘parity of esteem’ between types of education or training, and between the types of jobs they lead to. This is the ‘equal but different’ argument. Despite this desired parity, in its most influential form the argument tends to come from those who have themselves been the beneficiaries of (often elite) academic educations – and who are likely to want the same for their children. The ‘equally esteemed’ vocational education is, conversely, best suited to other people’s children. The problem with mass higher education is often found to be with first-in-family media studies graduates from new universities, not history graduates from Oxbridge – or, as Patrick Ainley puts it: ‘too many of the wrong sort of children had gone to the wrong sort of universities’. The idea is summed up neatly in the title of Paul Temple’s review of David Goodheart’s recent book Head, Hand, Heart: ‘Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?’

The incredulity of the ‘why don’t they just…?’ question, the Resolution Foundation’s ‘surprise’ and David Willetts’s ‘frustration’ is directed at other people and their irrational behaviour. A more fruitful question might be what I, personally, would do if I lost my job as a university lecturer. Would I apply for a job in social care? If not, why not? If these seem like facetious questions, then that in itself is telling us something.

The myth of the unskilled worker

A key reason that I wouldn’t apply to a social care role if I lost my job (at least until many other avenues had been exhausted) is the mismatch between the skills and experience I have and the skills and experience required of social carers.

A 2015 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation inquired in some detail into the different working conditions of those in social care, retail and hospitality. Social carers need an understanding of different medical conditions and levels of care requirements, knowledge of relevant policies and their situationally specific applications, and skill in the complex emotional labour needed to deal with difficult and sometimes violent encounters with clients.

Social carers have sector-specific skills required for a very difficult job, and it shouldn’t be baffling that people with very different skillsets aren’t applying for these roles. These skills may not always be matched with specific qualifications (although they sometimes are), and we should be very careful about conflating these two things. When we do, the worker without qualifications is easily transformed into the worker without skills. Passing reference may be made to ‘re-skilling’ hospitality workers for jobs in social care, as in David Willetts’s interview, but this is mere lip service if accompanied by incredulity that hospitality workers aren’t already applying to care jobs. This is not to say that nobody can move jobs between sectors, nor that all jobs are equally different from one another. But all jobs require specific skills, and the fact that two types of job (hospitality and social care) tend to be poorly paid, and don’t always correlate to specific qualifications, does not by any means make the workers in these jobs interchangeable without meaningful retraining.

In fact, the survey on which the Resolution Foundation’s report was based did ask respondents across all sectors why they thought they were unemployed. The top response was that they were unemployed because, despite applying for jobs, they weren’t getting them. This is the demand-side explanation, often forgotten in discussions of applicants’ behaviours: simply, there are not very many jobs at the moment, and unless there are jobs to which no one applies, merely spreading applications around more evenly between positions will not do anything to improve overall employment. The second most chosen response was the feeling that their ‘skills and experience didn’t match the jobs available’.

Irrespective of the reduction of rational explanations to ‘concerns’ or ‘feelings’ (elsewhere: ‘experience, qualifications, geography and preferences will typically limit the sort of industries in which a person feels they can work’, emphasis added), workers from all sorts of sectors identify these two explanations for their unemployment – the lack of jobs for which they have the right skillset, and the lack of jobs in general – because they are in fact very good explanations for their unemployment.

Conclusion

The tone of some recent discussion on unemployment implies that low-paid workers are interchangeable. This notion of the interchangeable, unskilled worker is what allows the narrative of other people’s irrational behaviour to take hold, and incredulity and frustration to become acceptable responses. If, conversely, we acknowledge the skills of these workers, and the explanations workers across sectors give for their unemployment (precisely the same reasons I would give if I were unemployed), we no longer need to feel baffled.

It’s true that we don’t as a society seem to value the work of those in hospitality or in social care, either by paying such workers well or by offering routes to meaningful and well-respected qualifications. Peddling the mantra of parity of esteem while continuing to relegate other people’s children to a separate educational track only reinforces the sense of other people’s jobs as fundamentally different from my own. If parity of esteem between types of job is to be meaningful, it requires huge political work. The Socialist Educational Association’s advocacy of 14–19 comprehensive education, with a mix of academic and vocational learning for all young people, is the type of proposal which takes seriously the equal value of different types of education, skills and the jobs to which they lead. Without radical ideas such as this, politicians will be able to continue to devalue some groups of workers as interchangeable, unskilled – and as infantilised ‘disappointments’.

Kathryn Telling is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex and is currently writing a book on interdisciplinarity, soft skills and elitism in higher education which will be published by Bristol University Press.

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Image Credit: Stencil in Fallowfield, Manchester