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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.