HR needs to think about what makes good quality work

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According to the latest ONS figures, unemployment has fallen to a six-and-a-half year low (5.8%). Cause for celebration, surely – but do these statistics tell the whole story?

With five million people in low-paid work and the rise in self-employment, is the recovery really reaching all areas of the workforce? While falling unemployment is a good thing overall, the idea that any job is better than no job needs re-examining. I recently saw

Stephen Bevan speak on the importance of job quality. He cited a study that found low-quality work – poorly paid, insecure or lacking opportunities – is worse for a person’s mental health than being unemployed.

What makes good quality work? HR needs to ponder this important question for all levels of the workforce – not just ‘knowledge workers’ or those with valuable skills. But the increasing polarisation of the labour market means constructing a ladder has become more of a challenge.

Labour market researchers identify investment in training and development as vital in helping people ‘escape’ low-paid roles. This requires translating good intentions and policies into action, as well as reversing training budget cuts. And line managers making sure employees are aware of any training opportunities.

As several HR directors have pointed out to me, the challenge is often making sure people at every level of the organisation know about the training available, and that they are supported by their line manager to take part in it. As for pay, the productivity questions looms large – can organisations afford to pay more while productivity remains low, or does investing more in people lead to increased productivity?

For many companies, operating on razor thin margins, this is a business model issue. So, is it time to rethink business practices?

Of course, on the subject of low-paid work the rise of outsourcing makes things harder. While many organisations focus on fairly rewarding, developing and doing the right thing for their people, it might not be the same story for their supply chain.

Hearteningly, supply chain collaboration appears to be on the rise. The larger service providers HR magazine spoke to for our cover story welcome it, and enlightened clients recognise perhaps they should look beyond cost alone when considering bids. HR being involved in the management of people beyond the organisation may be challenging, but it is rewarding.

Clearly, not everyone can – or wants – to do senior, highly skilled, highly paid roles. But everyone should be able to do high quality roles – and HR can and should play a big part in making that happen.

Katie Jacobs is editor of HR magazine

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