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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).