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.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.