Stuck in a Nightclub

By CIPD's Scotland Senior Public Policy Adviser, Marek Zemanik. 

I am a recovering political adviser. OK, maybe that’s a bit unfair. I have not fought a war, battled addiction or been through a traumatic experience. But the last eight years have been bruising and exhausting for almost everyone involved in politics. This is especially true in Scotland, where we are currently in the midst of our eighth national election campaign since 2012 - and that’s on top of two fractious referendums.

However, apart from the exhaustion, there is another feeling that has grown in me over the years - frustration. This is primarily because the two defining constitutional questions in Scotland - on independence and Brexit - have left very little space for genuine policy debate at a time when it has never been more important.

This of course is a two-way street. If political parties base their central election pitch around one issue and if all voters read and hear about is the constitution, it will impact our collective consciousness. You only have to look at YouGov’s political tracker since the 2016 referendum - Brexit has climbed and stayed on top of the most important issues list, ahead of the NHS, economy or the environment.

The frustration I mention comes from the deafening noise of the constitutional debate drowning out proper policy conversations and the resulting febrile atmosphere in discourse. Just like standing in a nightclub, with music blaring out, attempting to chat, yet we all just end up shouting at each other, increasingly exasperated, unable to properly hear what others are saying. I’d rather it was the morning after already, nursing a hangover, ears ringing, but a little bit calmer.

Because the truth is, regardless of our relationship with the EU - or indeed Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom - we are facing a generational shift in our economy, that is going to put a strain on workplaces, on employees and employers and on whole communities too. The arrival of industry 4.0 - automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning - means huge opportunities, but significant challenges too. We simply need to get policy right.

The fast-paced changes in our economy have kickstarted debates over the future of work, working hours and skills, amongst others. Our role at the CIPD is to look at some of these issues and provide evidence-led recommendations to both practitioners and policymakers to further our one main purpose - better work and working lives. There are three main public policy areas we want to focus on in Scotland, all interrelated and all crucial in relation to the economic changes that are upon us.

Firstly, fair work. Improving job quality is at the heart of what the CIPD does. We believe that good work is fundamental to individual well-being, a fairer society and a strong economy. Policymakers and employers should aim to improve job quality across the workforce – not only pushing for more jobs, but better jobs too.

Security of contract and salary levels are important components, but we also need to look beyond that to issues like flexible working, skills development opportunities, constructive employee-employer relationships and work-life balance. Industry 4.0 will undoubtedly transform some workplaces - let’s ensure it’s for the benefit of workers.

Secondly, education and skills. With both fully devolved, we have a particular policy interest in these areas. Scotland has a highly skilled workforce, but many graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, with high rates of graduate over-qualification. This suggests that there is a need to provide a better balance between vocational and technical skills and academic qualifications. There is also a growing recognition that the development of so-called ‘essential skills’ is crucial in preparing young people for the workplace, with unique human skills being especially critical in the age of automation.

Furthermore, while much of the policy focus of recent years has centred on young people’s skills development, there has been very little recognition of the importance of lifelong learning - and even less policy action. The speed of changes in the economy, combined with Scotland’s demographic challenges, makes it pivotal that policy - and more funding - is directed at developing models that allow for flexible lifelong skills development. 

Thirdly, productivity. Productivity growth is critical if Scotland is to benefit from sustainable increases in living standards and pay. However, since the financial crash the UK and Scottish economies have experienced a productivity slow-down, compared to some of our key competitors. This has been attributed to a range of factors from innovation diffusion to infrastructure investment, but the so-called ‘productivity puzzle’ continues to attract the interest of academics and policymakers. More recently, one factor in particular has been highlighted across studies - the lack of management capability, something the CIPD has sought to help with and will continue to do so.

There are many other strands of research and policy work that our excellent colleagues at HQ are involved in - from health and well-being, through executive pay and the gender pay gap to age diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The good news is that evidence and policy recommendations are being developed, regardless of the political argy bargy.

I look forward to contributing to this work. You’ll hear more from us at CIPD Scotland soon. Hopefully the music will have been turned down a bit and we won’t have to shout.

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