For someone living in poverty, a route to progress out of a low-paying job can be a light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it’s developing skills, providing clear pathways free of barriers or challenging perceptions, people professionals play a vital role in helping staff progress in the workplace. To do so, it helps to understand why people get trapped in lower-paying roles in the first place.

Why people get stuck on low pay

People can become trapped in low-paid roles, with little hope of increasing their salaries, for several reasons:

  • Some low-paid roles can see employees living from shift to shift, rather than having a clear role within the organisation.
  • Many employers invest less in the skills of their transient staff (PDF) – those on temporary or insecure contracts.
  • A lack of flexibility and access to good work can make it difficult for those with caring responsibilities to progress. This is especially so for women and single parents, with women more likely than men to occupy low-paid roles.
  • Confidence or motivational barriers – exacerbated by the risk of changing jobs or careers – are more prevalent among the low paid.
  • Logistical barriers – like a shortage of higher-paying roles in the immediate area, unaffordable or unreliable transport, or the need to be close to others due to caring responsibilities – can hold people back.
  • Direct or in-direct discrimination within organisations, which mean people – particularly older workers, those with disabilities or those working part-time – are overlooked for development opportunities.

For the lower paid, career progression is key to a prosperous future

Around the UK, too many people are struggling to find the good work that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families. Worries about the rising cost of living loom large for households, but at the same time, job vacancies are at a record high and employers are struggling to find the right recruits with the right skills.

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What employers can do to break down barriers to progression

Progression doesn’t just happen naturally – people need a clear path to follow, access to the right training and a supportive line manager. People professionals also play a vital role in breaking down barriers that stand in the way of progression:

  • Promote a culture of lifelong learning and show people of all ages and stages of their careers a clear path to progression if they want it. Invest in targeted training and development to help people fulfil their potential, regardless of age, disability, or other factors.
  • Promote an inclusive flexible working culture that ensures those who work flexibly are not overlooked for development opportunities, and quash any perceptions that flexible working is unsuitable for managerial roles.
  • Put in place a clear pay structure and ensure everyone in your organisation (particularly those in the lowest-paid roles) knows what they need to do if they want to take on higher-paid roles.
  • Develop your line managers, so that they are equipped to support their teams to progress.

Does flexibility help or hinder progression?

Flexible working can both enable or hinder in-work progression, depending on the organisational culture. Many people find themselves stuck in low-paid roles because they can’t sacrifice the flexibility – if progression means disrupting an already precarious work-life balance (juggling work and childcare, for example), their options are limited.

A well-managed flexible working culture – with options like job-sharing, compressed hours, hybrid working or flexibility around start and finish times from the day they start the role – can make higher paid roles a reality for those who need the flexibility. In fact, case studies show that flexible working has been successfully adopted in roles and sectors where you might least expect it.

Flexible working

See our flexible working guidance for more information on the benefits of flexible working, how to embed it into your organisation, and the different flexible working arrangements available.

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Skilled line managers are key to supporting in-work progression efforts

An organisation’s efforts to support in-work progression will be hampered without skilled and capable line managers who are willing and able to spot and nurture potential in their teams.

Line managers should set aside time for informal development conversations, and encourage employees to speak openly about their long-term ambitions so that they can build the skills and identify the steps they need to take to reach their goals.

However, line managers’ willingness and ability to support in-work progression will be limited if not supported by an organisational culture of life-long learning and inclusive flexibility.

Developing in-house talent is good for business

With competition for well-qualified talent increasing, it’s perhaps no surprise that a third of organisations say they are developing more talent in-house. Developing in-house talent is often easier than recruiting new people to plug your organisation’s skills gaps. Businesses that invest in their workforces also enjoy improved staff retention, loyalty and engagement.

In 2020, the Department for Work and Pensions set up the In-Work Progression Commission, which outlines the steps employers can take to develop their workforce’s skills:

  1. Create an individual progression and learning plan: People professionals are instrumental in putting in place – and measuring – progression plans for low-paid employees. Draw up a clear progression pathway for each employee, with regular reviews.
  2. Offer mentoring: Giving staff the opportunity to learn from their peers is invaluable and can help boost their confidence and ambition.
  3. Introduce shadowing and work experience: Schemes aimed at low-paid workers that offer individuals a taste of all areas of the business – from the shop floor to the boardroom – can help expose them to different roles and opportunities. Experiencing what greater responsibility looks and feels like first-hand can address any attitudinal barriers to progression.
  4. Support professional development: Pay for and/or provide paid time off for employees to work towards a professional qualification or develop the skills they need to progress. The Commission also suggests that businesses monitor progression in the same way that they track other aspects of their business: ‘Put simply, what gets measured gets managed.’

The Commission also suggests that businesses monitor progression in the same way that they track other aspects of their business: ‘Put simply, what gets measured gets managed.’

What if my business can’t afford to invest in L&D?

Investing in a dedicated training and development plan may be easier for larger companies than smaller ones, but it’s important not to ignore it.

Take advantage of existing skilled staff and create both formal and informal environments for the+m to pass on their knowledge to lower-paid employees. Mentoring and work experience can form part of this offering.

For any training you do provide, be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and what employees need to learn – find their skills gaps, set clear goals, and then measure the outcome.

As well as offering career progression through training and development, small and large businesses can also help to boost pay packets in the short term by helping people work more hours if they want to (and helping to break down any practical barriers that make this difficult).

What changes in public policy could support in-work progression?

Training opportunities tend to be concentrated amongst those who are already highly skilled and earn more. The government should consider ways to encourage employers to provide more equal access to training and upskilling opportunities, as well as helping individuals overcome barriers, such as financial barriers, to training uptake. This could include rethinking how the apprenticeship levy currently operates as well as mechanisms such as lifelong learning accounts.

In particular, the CIPD is calling on the Government to:

  • reform the Apprenticeship Levy to create a broader, more flexible training levy to boost employer investment in skills
  • provide £60 million to fund a business improvement consultancy service via the Growth Hub network to help more firms improve their people management and workforce development capability.

Explore the other key ways in which you can
make work a more reliable route out of poverty:


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