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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.