Critics of zero hours contracts miss the big picture

>22% of UK jobs require no more than compulsory level education, compared with less than 5% in countries like Germany and Sweden

An article in the Guardian this week (Zero-hours jobseekers? We've given up on workplace rights, 7 May) attacked the use of zero hours contracts. Zoe Williams comments in her article 'the irony of the zero hours contract life, is that like so many mean ideas, it costs more than it saves. Security, a sense of personal pride and value at work, a belief that you are doing something that is valuable for your employer - all of this is dismissed at a price.'

There is no doubt that some people on zero hours contracts are being exploited. Where this is the case, employment practice needs to improve. Equally, our research has shown that zero hours workers are twice as likely to be satisfied with their working arrangements as dissatisfied and have comparable job satisfaction with other workers.

However, a narrow discussion about the rights and wrongs of zero hours contracts misses the bigger debate about how to address the causes of low quality, low paid and low skilled jobs in the UK. CIPD research has found that successive governments' skills policies have been fundamentally flawed. Policy has focused almost exclusively on the supply side of skills, with little understanding of the demand for skills and how best to utilise skills in the workplace, undermining the country's productivity and long-term competitiveness. Both the UKCES and OECD have highlighted the demand side of skills as being critical. In 2009, the UKCES concluded in its report Towards ambition 2020: Skills, jobs and growth that the skills problem in the UK 'lies largely on the demand side. The relatively low level of skills in the UK; the limited extent of skills shortages and the potentially low level of demand for skills relative to their supply, taken together, imply a demand side weakness.'

A blinkered approach to boosting the supply of skills, while neglecting how to stimulate greater employer investment in skills, has contributed to the UK having the highest proportion of low skilled jobs in the OECD after Spain. 22% of UK jobs require no more than compulsory level education, compared with less than 5% in countries like Germany and Sweden. The UK also has the second highest level of what the OECD refers to as 'over qualification', meaning that many skills are not being utilised effectively. It is no wonder that the UK's productivity levels trail our key international competitors.

To start addressing these problems, there needs to be a fundamental review of skills and workplace policy in the UK. This must go beyond the traditional focus on the 'numbers game' of increasing qualifications and certified skills levels and focus more on improving how skills are put to productive use in the workplace, best practice around people management, innovation in ways of working and on how to stimulate greater employer investment in higher skills. Without this, too many people, regardless of their contractual arrangements, will continue to find that their opportunities to secure rewarding work, progress in careers and realise their potential are limited.

Ben Willmott
CIPD Head of Public Policy

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