Turns out that having a highly-skilled population doesn’t create more low-skilled jobs

Groningen University, the Netherlands. Image: Wutsje/Wikimedia Commons.

Some good news for you: a study from Groningen University has found that having a highly-skilled population does not actually create any more jobs for low-skilled workers.

Well, it does in a way: the study found that, for every 100 highly-skilled workers, a city will create 10 low-skilled jobs are created. But – here’s the kicker – those jobs aren’t being done by low-skilled workers. In cities with a highly-skilled population, low-skilled jobs are being done by students and other high-skilled workers who haven’t been able to find high-skilled jobs.

Now before you start running in circles, clutching your face and gibbering at this earth shattering news, let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that this is one of many politicians’ favourite myths. They just love the idea that improving the skills of an area’s population will improve the economic opportunities open to everyone.

It’s an attractive notion. The problem is that, while they’re invested in this idea, most governments refuse to invest in the other systems that are needed to make it happen.

So, assuming they want to make their favourite myth a reality, how could they do so? Here are a few ideas.

More grants for higher education, graduate opportunities and an end to unpaid internships

Cities with a highly-educated population are usually student cities – and students need money. The benefit to hiring students for low-skill jobs is that they tend to require less of a commitment. They are one of the only groups of people who benefit from zero hour contracts, they don’t tend to be overly bothered about pension plans, and they usually don’t need to take time off for family emergencies or maternity/paternity leave.

These desirable traits, combined with the pressure to undertake unpaid internships, mean that, until students have financial freedom to pursue their studies they will always be prime candidates for low-skilled jobs – reducing the number available to lower-skilled workers.

Increase affordable housing

It’s not enough to provide low-income jobs: a city also has to provide access to those jobs. Lack of affordable housing is pushing low and middle-income families further away from city centres, increasing both commute times and travel costs.

The Netherlands has done a fairly decent job of providing affordable – but in London we are starting to see what happens when rich tenants are given priority over low-income families. When homeowners were evicted from the Aylesbury and New Era Estates, they were also moving away from their jobs.

By increasing commute times and restricting housing options in the city centre, low-skilled workers are forced to pay more to get to work; meanwhile, the highly-skilled workers who can still afford to live in the centre enjoy short commutes.

And on the theme of people being able to physically access these new jobs...

Prioritise public transport in deprived areas

Good public transport links increase the value of a property. This can be seen the high desirability of houses near the Brisbane ferry landings; it’s the reason that London’s house prices are generally cheaper south of the Thames, where tube coverage is so much lower; and it’s visible in the way that the West End of Newcastle is reliant on buses while the comparatively wealthy East side of the city has a magnificent Metro.

City councils tend to invest in wealthy areas of a city, leaving lower-income areas with less access to public transport and a much longer commute. This goes beyond inconveniencing a few people so that their rich neighbours can travel with ease. For many single parent families, the extra hours spent on the bus become extra money spent on childcare – a significant hindrance to women hoping to stay in the workforce. Unless people are able to access low-skilled jobs, there will be fewer candidates and a higher rate of unemployment in poorer, less accessible parts of the city.

Value and support low-skilled workers

The majority of low-skilled jobs are manual, and while they’re vital to a city they rarely have much social cache. By providing a living wage, governments can acknowledge the importance of low-skill jobs, while also finding a way to help low-skilled workers afford to travel to and live near said jobs.

It’s not enough to just invite a load of highly-skilled workers over, sit back and expect them to pour jobs and money into the local economy. Workers need to be able to live in the same city as the place they work, they need to know that they can access these jobs without paying through the nose for childcare, and they need to know they can keep these jobs instead of being passed over for someone with a BA in history. Until that happens the idea that highly-skilled workers result in more low-skilled jobs will remain an empty promise.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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