Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Local Regeneration in the UK, Work-Based Learning and the Green Global Golden Age

Geography plays an important role is shaping people’s access to work. For example, the mean distance between low-skilled workers’ homes and low-skilled job opportunities is often high. Labour geographers and economists call this spatial mismatch and it has been widely documented in both North American and European contexts (Kain 1968; McLafferty and Preston 1996, Korsu and Wenglenski 2009). There are several reasons for spatial mismatch. In many modern cities low-skilled workers are concentrated in areas furthest from the main employment centres. This is one of the downsides to the planning logic of the scheme, estate, banlieue and project. Poor public transport links and limited access to private vehicles exacerbate this problem (Green et al 2004, Korsu and Wenglenski 2009). Moreover, Kasarda and Ting (1996) have argued that spatial mismatch may compound skills mismatch as people with limited education compete for the low-skilled jobs within their neighbourhoods. This situation could become more critical with technological advances in automation that will render the human labour needed in many contemporary low-skilled jobs obsolete. Spatial mismatch raises a complex set of societal problems as it disables significant numbers of workers from fully engaging in the labour market.

For the most part the spatial mismatch thesis concentrates on issues of ‘real’ Euclidean space: the problem being one of distances between locations – i.e. home and work – and limited access to public and financial services that would allow under-serviced people to defeat this ‘tyranny of distance’. However, this Euclidean perspective, although useful as a means of mapping labour market behaviour, does not tell the full story.  Green et al (2004) following on from the work of Peck (1996) and Morrison (2005) remind us that labour markets are institutional and social constructs “shaped by lived traditions within localities” (Green et al 2004: 302). As such, labour market experiences differ greatly between various sub-groups within the working population. This leads us to think in terms of social and cultural mismatches in the labour market. Van Ham et al (2000) argue that during a lifetime, people build up place-specific social capital such as contacts with family and friends upon which they rely for support. Many people are, unsurprisingly, averse to moving too far from these support hubs. Gender, race and religion also play into an unwillingness by people to search for work in locations deemed too far from their social-cultural support hubs. For example, research shows that men and woman differ in their commuting tolerance, with women more likely to be time constrained due to domestic responsibilities and therefore less likely to tolerate longer commuting times (Gordon et al 1989, Johnston-Anumonwo 1992). Wrench and Qureshi (1996)* have highlighted restricted job-search geographies for black and minority ethnic groups worried about being subjected to racial discrimination. Work by Green et al (2004) concentrates on young job-seekers in Belfast who speak about the risks of working in or moving through an area of the ‘opposite community’.

There are other obvious and less provocative reasons for many people being unwilling to expand their job-search horizons too far beyond their neighbourhoods. We invest a lot of emotion in the place we call home. We know its streets, its back alleys, its courts. We have spent significant amounts of time pondering over the sorry state of the children’s swing park or marvelling at the straight lines of Mr Kelly’s lawn. The local pub puts on really good quiz nights and Sandra from the local café makes a rare lentil soup. We should not make light of these emotional investments in place. Environmental quality, local facilities and social connections are important indicators of well-being and, alongside access to secure and suitable work, rank high in well-being indicator frameworks used by Oxfam and the OECD for example.

A sad irony of spatial mismatch is that within those neighbourhoods where large concentrations of low-skilled workers reside there is often much work to be done. This might include improving the environmental quality of public spaces, building new or retrofitting old public buildings such as libraries and community centres as well as residential properties. It will also certainly involve a significant amount of social care expertise as these communities, like others across the UK, become markedly older in the coming years.  

I recently watched a short film about the Newbiggen Hall Estate in Newcastle. The film is part of Jeremy Corbyn’s social media campaign strategy. Putting aside my personal views on Corbyn and the Labour Party (sympathetic but unconvinced) there was much within this short film that speaks directly to the sad irony of spatial mismatch in the UK labour market. The narrator, a local woman called Fiona Ranson, speaks about her life growing up on the estate. With an emphasis on the local library and education more broadly, she tells us that the estate was a “vibrant” place where local people made full use of the library and other public services. Nowadays the estate looks, in large part, semi-derelict and the library is no more. With an implicit connection made between locality, education and jobs, Fiona then begins to speak of the need for “a vocational education system that is second to none. That has parity with the academic stream”, which is “well-funded” and “challenging”.

There is growing international support, at both policy and academic levels, for significant change in approaches taken to education and skills development. For example, a recent white paper by the World Economic Forum criticises ‘static’ education systems as largely inadequate for addressing profound shifts in the global labour market being brought about by technological advances in information and operation technologies. In similar vein, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK echoes calls to meet the skills challenges of technological change, and highlights the equally daunting task of addressing the impact of demographic change on the future labour market, where substantial gaps in skills and experience will begin to emerge as increasing numbers of people retire from the workforce. A key point of consensus within this literature is the need for more Work-Based Learning (WBL) opportunities for citizens at all stages of their learning/working journey.

WBL has also come under some strong criticism. Forward (2008: 7) argues it consigns, in particular, “young workers to a narrow and instrumental training and working life”. Avis (2014), sees some forms of WBL as retrospective in nature, tied to and normalising the inequalities inherent in the capitalist system of production and as such weighted to the self-serving wants of many employers. More progressive approaches to WBL exist however, and these are gaining traction in contemporary literatures on skills development and education more broadly. In these more progressive models, learner experiences of the workplace are central. Here WBL becomes a more bespoke programme of learning, which in its design, implementation and assessment takes into account prior learning and place-specific experiential learning. In these more integrated models the development of the learner/worker over the long term is understood as beneficial to the labour market.

Another key point of consensus in this literature is the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to the development of WBL models that brings together employers, unions and others in pursuit of a fit, fair and productive skills strategy. Key to the potential achievement of a functioning multi-stakeholder approach in the UK have been reforms within the skills system aimed at creating a more regional approach, by linking schools and colleges with employers, regional development agencies and other regional bodies. Given the above discussion on spatial mismatch in the labour market, this regional turn is a welcome one. However, policy-makers in this area must now go further, by giving greater priority to locales hit hardest by underemployment and then creating in these areas more local training opportunities that meet the high educational standards promoted by protagonists of progressive WBL models.

One potentially promising avenue for local skills training is in the green economy. Evolutionary economist Carlotta Perez (2016: 201) writes “green growth should be seen as a ‘mission-orientated’ pathway to promote a major switch in production patterns and lifestyles, creating new sources of employment and well-being”.  I have already mentioned retrofitting existing public and residential buildings to make them energy efficient as one example of potential work in the green economy. There is also a need to build new high quality, affordable, green housing. Another area of possible job creation is urban agriculture, in the form of commercial city farms and market gardens. These green ideas have been with us for some time but, like Perez (ibid: 202), I do think we are now witnessing a cultural shift in consumer demand away from “standardised mass consumption to one that is custom-tailored and sustainable”. This cultural shift is being pushed along by technological change in ICT, which is enabling organisational innovation across the production spectrum. One result of this shift is an emerging spatial clustering of interdependent users and producers. This is particularly exciting when we consider the locality of, at present, service and job deprived housing estates, which are ideally positioned to accommodate the growing number of SME’s required to fuel a green urban economy. And many of the residents are ready to be (re)skilled so that we all might benefit from the opportunities offered by a “Green Global Golden Age” (ibid).        

*WRENCH, J. and QURESHI, T. (1996) Higher horizons: a qualitative study of young men of Bangladeshi origin. Department for Education and Employment Research Series 30. London: Stationery Office.

Dr John Crossan
University of Strathclyde

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