Career Confidence is Essential for Workers to Survive Automation and Covid-19

New research shows how Wales can give people what they need to navigate a post COVID-19 job market, write Jack Orlik and Rob Ashelford.

For years, governments, businesses and trade unions have been thinking about how to manage the next big shake-up of the job market.

They thought it would happen as a result of automation. So did we at Nesta

Now, in the fallout of COVID-19, we’re seeing many of the trends we predicted being accelerated – jobs being lost, a change in the demand for skills, and uptake of robotics. 29% of Welsh workers have been furloughed, and many will need to start looking for new roles when it becomes clear that their employers can no longer afford to pay them.

When faced with unemployment, workers often make poor choices about the roles they take. They are more likely to consider precarious work that can trap them in low pay for years. They suffer as a result, and the economy falters.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, poor matching between workers and roles resulted in years-long damage to productivity, high staff turnover and wage suppression. A similar outcome following the pandemic would leave the country’s economy in a deep rut.

Our new report, Finding Opportunities in Uncertainty, draws on research among 18 residents in Newport, Wales, to provide guidance about the type of information and support that can help workers make better decisions in this unsettled time.

Over 6 weeks in February and March 2020, the workers we spoke to used WhatsApp and telephone calls to report back on their exploration of the local job market, sharing emojis to describe their emotional journeys as they looked for new opportunities. It was soon clear that the research participants found the process of ‘career navigation’ to be costly, risky and demoralising.

The Newport workers struggled to identify appropriate roles. They sent out dozens of applications but received few responses. They used their precious time to respond to job advertisements, only to find that the hours that they were needed were incompatible with childcare. And just learning about new career options made them worried that their current employer would find out and dismiss them.

“It’s hard to apply for jobs that I want to do or should be doing. [I’m] stressed and anxious…it’s difficult to change jobs and find other opportunities”

At the centre of these frustrations was poor information about the job market. The workers we spoke to described how it was difficult to learn about, find and filter opportunities based on criteria that were important to them.

Knowing about salaries was crucial, but for many, information about factors such as location, hours, contract type and opportunities for progression were vital to help them decide whether to apply for a job. However, this basic information was often missing from job advertisements.

“The majority of the workers we spoke to were unaware of the support that was offered by organisations such as CareersWales.”

The workers’ difficulties choosing between jobs were compounded by a lack of confidence in their own abilities. They struggled to identify the skills that they had, and to see how these could be applied to new occupations. This prevented them from exploring a wider range of jobs, and often led them to search for opportunities that had no skill requirements, rather than considering how new skills could help them find good work.

“It would be great if there were a system where you could enter the skills you have and it could pop out the kind of jobs that you’d be good at – not necessarily what jobs are available, but things you might suit.”

To plot pathways to jobs that make use of their skills and offer them a promising future, we suggest that workers in Newport needed better labour market information, in the form of a real-time map of the changing labour market.

Generated through collective intelligence methods, this tool would draw on a wide range of data, from official statistics to live job advertisements, to provide accurate, up-to-date information about the changing landscape of jobs and demand for skills. Already, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found that this type of tool can help unemployed jobseekers to find work more efficiently. 

Information alone is not the whole solution. Workers need guidance to see how their skills can match opportunities in the job market and the ability and confidence to re-train where they need new skills. 

However, the majority of the workers we spoke to were unaware of the support that was offered by organisations such as CareersWales. They were reluctant to use careers services, which they believed were designed for young people and the unemployed.

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FE colleges, CareersWales and Jobcentres could do more to build awareness and trust of their services among working adults. The recent announcement of a £40m investment in skills and training by Welsh Government is welcome and could go some way to resolving this, but should also be matched by better labour market data to ensure that those who have developed new skills are able to find suitable roles.

Such data would also support post-compulsory education to deliver the step-change that was recommended by the Welsh Government’s recent review in the Digital Innovation for the Economy and the Future of Work, chaired by Prof. Phil Brown.

With a clearer understanding of the changing demand for skills locally, FE colleges and HE institutions can prepare their students for growing occupations, and provide more targeted services that help workers and employers to adapt for the future of work in an age of lifelong learning.

Our new report, Finding Opportunities in Uncertainty, sets out a checklist for the provision of information and support that can help workers like those in Newport adapt to a changing labour market.

It’s now up to education providers, employers, job search sites and government to build the map they need to navigate it, and give people the direction they need to apply their skills effectively.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Photo from amtec

Jack Orlik is the Programme Manager for Nesta’s Open Jobs initiative that seeks to help individuals, organisations and governments make more informed labour market decisions.
Rob Ashelford is the co-Lead and Head of Programmes at Y Lab - the public service innovation lab for Wales, a partnership between Nesta and Cardiff University. 

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