Government generally has two policy strategies for improving job quality according to Osterman (2008): creating more good jobs or making bad jobs better. Although the definition of job quality varies in the academic literature, often depending on disciplinary base, there is consensus that good jobs are typically marked by high skill, and good pay and prospects; bad jobs by low skill, low pay and poor prospects (Clark 2005; Coats with Lehki 2008; Goos and Manning 2003, 2007; Lloyd et al. 2008; McGovern et al. 2004). Creating good jobs has long been a policy aim of UK Government, resonating with long-standing academic claims of job improvements centred on developing knowledge-based economies (Darr and Warhurst 2008).
However, the assumption that shifts to a knowledge-based economy will inevitably raise job quality ignores current trends within the UK labour market. Evidence indicates a more mixed jobs’ trajectory, with the labour market becoming hour-glass shaped (Nolan 2001; Wilson et al. 2004) and increasingly polarised into good and bad jobs (Goos and Manning 2003, 2007). Many of these bad jobs show no sign of disappearing and, if anything, are becoming entrenched (Lloyd et al. 2008). UK employers predominantly rely on business strategies that are cost-focused with an unwillingness and/or inability to move up the value chain to produce high quality goods and services which might lever improvements in workers’ skill and pay (Keep 2000; Mason 2002). Moreover some economists (e.g. Freeman and Schetkatt 2005) and social scientists (e.g. Florida 2002) argue that bad jobs are, in part, a function of good jobs. With workers in good jobs tending to be ‘cash rich, time poor’, support services are needed if their labour is to be reproduced. These services are provided by workers in ‘3Cs’ type jobs – cooking, cleaning and caring so that any putative knowledge economy is complemented by what might be termed the 'cappuccino economy' (Warhurst 2008). Many workers in these jobs are low paid, often work part-time and have few accredited skills (Lloyd et al. 2008).
Whilst Florida suggests that bad jobs can be a springboard to good jobs, evidence for the US and UK reveals a ‘bad jobs trap’ with less, and declining, mobility out of these jobs (Richardson and Miller-Lewis 2002; Snower 1996; see similarly Masterman-Smith and Pocock 2008 for Australia). The outcome in other countries, however, can be very different. In Denmark, for example, with government support and employer cooperation, bad jobs can be transitional, with workers progressing to better jobs through internal or external labour markets (Westergaard-Nielson 2008).
It is not just the creation of dead-end jobs that is problematic for the UK. The ‘in-work poverty’ that characterises many of these bad jobs, defined as having an income from these jobs that is below the official poverty line, is now being recognised as the major driver of residual child poverty in the UK. The government has consistently argued that paid work is the route out of poverty and social exclusion (DSS 1999). However the level of in-work poverty has recently risen (Palmer et al. 2008) and whilst the overall rate of child poverty, initially declined, it too has increased over the last two years and increased most in families experiencing in-work poverty (Kenway 2008).
The last UK Government focused on taking remedial action to supplement the household income of workers in bad jobs, through benefits and tax credits for example. The new UK Government has yet to spell out its job priorities. However there is already an acknowledgement of the limits of welfare reform (DWP 2007) and making bad jobs better has become a policy priority (HM Treasury 2008; Cabinet Office 2008). To further social inclusion, social mobility and economic prosperity, the government has suggested that job stability, job progression and workers’ skill and pay levels could be improved (DWP 2007) but has also noted constraints in the achievement of such improvements (HM Treasury 2008). The problem is that the UK currently lacks an appropriate evidence base from which government policy might be developed (Kenway 2008; Lawton 2009).
Importantly there is evidence from the UK and elsewhere that bad jobs can be made better. The EU countries have different job quality trajectories ranging from polarisation to upgrading (Fernandez-Macias and Hurley 2008), suggesting that national labour market institutions and polices can make a difference .In the UK context a fragmented research base suggests the possibility of direct and indirect government intervention centred on: creating wage stability; national minimum wage enforcement; better and wider employment protection; more workplace learning and training opportunities; and more and better childcare provision (e.g. Grimshaw et al. 2008; Kenway 2008; Richardson and Miller-Lewis 2002). Drawing on US examples, where job quality is already a matter of public policy, Osterman (2005) notes two approaches to making bad jobs better. The traditional approach typically favours unionisation, wage enhancement and regulation. The innovative approach centres on developing internal labour markets, industry restructuring and consumer education (see also Bernhardt et al. 2003). Crucially, if bad jobs are to be made better, Osterman states, what is required is a linking of such workplace practices to government policy.