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The Changing Face of Work Skills


The past 20 years has seen a fall in the number of jobs needing no qualifications for entry and a rise in those requiring computer skills.

But according to research published by the Economic and Social Research Council on skills, knowledge and organisational performance, the pace of change has slowed during the past five years.

The report, Skills At Work, 1986 to 2006, written by Professor Alan Felstead (Cardiff University), Professor Duncan Gallie and Dr Ying Zhou (Oxford University) and Professor Francis Green (Kent University), gives the first findings from the 2006 Skills Survey, a nationally representative survey of 4,800 working individuals in Britain aged 20-65, and similar surveys carried out over the last two decades.

The surveys collected a wealth of information about the skills used at work, and about workers’ views on training and work, and about their pay and well-being.

Findings include: since 1986, there has been a fall in the proportion of jobs requiring no qualifications for entry, from 38% in 1986 to 28% in 2006.

There has also been a fall since 1986 in the proportion of jobs requiring less than one month to learn to do well, from 27% in 1986 to 19% in 2006. However, both these indicators of low-skill jobs have remained unchanged over the last five years.

Computing skills continue to become increasingly important in workplaces. In 2006 computers were essential to nearly half of all jobs compared with less than a third of jobs in 1997

But although computers are essential for a greater proportion of women’s jobs than men’s jobs (50% compared with 45%), only 21% of women’s jobs require the use of computers at complex or advanced levels compared with 35% of men’s jobs. Among women’s part-time work, the proportion of jobs using computers in complex or advanced ways is very much less (15%).

‘Influence skills’ – the abilities to persuade people, write long reports, make speeches, and to teach people – are also becoming more important and pay a premium over and above the rewards to education and training.

Comparing otherwise similar jobs for which influence skills are, on average, ‘essential’ with jobs where the skills are ‘very important’, the difference in hourly pay amounts to an estimated 7% for women and 8% for men.

There has been a convergence between the skills of men’s and women’s jobs. The proportion of jobs requiring degrees for entry rose between 1986 and 2006 from 14% to 21% among men, but from 6% to 18% among women.

In most skill domains part-time jobs have been narrowing the skills gap with full-time jobs.

Compared with otherwise similar jobs that do not use computers at all, those which use them in a ‘complex’ manner – for example, using statistical software packages – pay an estimated 18% premium for women and 12% for men.

The workplace itself is becoming an ever more important driver for learning. The proportions strongly agreeing to the statement ‘my job requires that I keep learning new things’ has consistently moved upwards during the 1992-2006 period – rising from 26% in 1992 to 30% in 2001 and then to 35% in 2006.

The proportions strongly agreeing to the statement ‘my job requires that I help my colleagues to learn new things’ rose from 27% in 2001 to 32% in 2006.

However, the rise in skills among employees over the last two decades has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the control they can exercise over their jobs.

Between 1992 and 2001 there was a marked decline in employee task discretion for both men and women, but since 2001 employee task discretion has remained stable. For example, the proportions reporting a great deal of influence over how to do tasks at work fell from 57% in 1992 to 43% in 2001, where it remained in 2006.


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