Wednesday 10 September 2014

Is the UK becoming a graduate economy or are we a nation of menial workers?

A report published earlier this week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concludes that the UK is becoming a ‘graduate economy’, with more people now likely to have a degree than to have only reached school-level qualifications. Yet the TUC, at its annual gathering, this year held in Liverpool, warned that the UK is becoming an increasingly low productivity, low wage economy. Can both these differing perspectives be reconciled? The answer is yes, as a look at our Byzantine occupational structure demonstrates.  

Although up to around half of all people employed in the UK today might be described as so-called ‘knowledge workers’ with professional or managerial skills, according to the Office for National Statistics the top 5 largest single occupational groupings at present (Q2 2014) include 1.1 million sales and retail assistants (a figure which excludes a further 223,000 people in the separate occupational category of retail cashiers and check-out operators), 600,000 cleaners and domestics, and 450,000 kitchen and catering assistants (which excludes a similar number split between the separate categories of waiters and waitresses and bar staff). The top 5 also includes 792,000 adult care workers, providing general rather than specialist or medical care services to the elderly, and 590,000 nurses (the latter the only occupation in the top 5 list for which formal entry level qualifications are necessarily required).

Moreover, while many of the occupations which have registered the most net expansion during the recent jobs recovery - such as taxation experts (up 88% between Q2 2011 and Q2 2014, to a total of 34,000), advertising accounts managers (up 75% to 33,000), psychologists (up 52% to 39,000) and town planning officers (up 55% to 24,000) - require professional or technical qualifications, high on the list also come window cleaners(up 73%, to 47,000), often unskilled odd jobbers, around 1 in 8 of whom are self-employed. Similarly, the 10 occupations which have contracted most in the past few years encompass skilled professionals – insurance underwriters (down 45% to 20,000 since 2011) and social scientists (down 42% to 10,000) – and skilled manual occupations – television engineers (down 46% to 6%), tillers (down 39% to 25,000) and sheet metal workers (down 33% to 13,000) – but do not include any unskilled jobs.

No wonder therefore that our complex and fluid occupational structure gives rise to so many conflicting views on how the British way of work is changing. From one perspective it’s clear that so-called ‘knowledge work’ is firmly on the rise, requiring a high level of professional and technical skill and offering decent pay prospects. Yet equally apparent is a substantial bedrock of low skill, low wage service work which accounts for the UK’s relatively high incidence of low pay, with around 1 in 5 (5 million) employees earning less than the commonly used low pay threshold for developed economies. While with considerable justification we like to portray ourselves as a nation of increasingly skilled professionals, we could also reasonably be described as a nation of shop assistants, cleaners and restaurant or café washer-uppers.


  1. Dear John,

    I have a Biochemistry degree from a top UK uni and have been forced by a professional body to return to university for 3 years, at my own great expense in time, money and effort, in order to meet the academic requirement to work in a Biochemistry department. I am prohibited from advancing my career in the industry I work in without doing biomedical science modules.

    I regard university as being intrinsically inferior to apprenticeships/internships as a means of preparation for employment. Those who work in the profession I'm heading in to similarly almost universally do not consider their university education to have been particularly useful.

    I could write less than half a page of A4 on what I learned in my Biochemistry BSc... because irrelevant information is swiftly forgotten. I'm yet to encounter any evidentiary basis for the efficacy of university as a means of preparing students for employment.

    I'm working at a low paid level in the industry I'm destined for and have not yet learned anything particularly useful at university, which I'm now 2 years in to. I work alongside Biomedical Scientists daily and almost every job I do was formerly done by a Biomedical Scientist (a consequence of NHS "efficiency improvements").

    I've constructed an essay laying out why I consider university to be inferior to apprenticeships. It includes 11 distinct, concisely tabulated reasons and I'd appreciate hearing you're thoughts on this. Please consider viewing the table even if not the whole essay.

    The abridged version:

    The full version:

    Thanks for reading.

  2. Some of these numbers seem "surprising" to say the least. For example, who is employing all these extra town planning officers ? How is this data derived ?