More support needed for low-skilled workers to progress into better jobs

Low-skilled workers face a range of barriers to progressing into better pay and conditions, a PSI study has found.

Examining the work experiences of a group of lone parents and long-term unemployed people over five years, the study found that low-skilled people were more likely to become stuck in a ‘low-pay no-pay cycle’ of temporary jobs, without opportunities for training or promotion. Where progression opportunities were not supported in the workplace, progression was a risky strategy, and many people prioritised work stability – even if poorly paid – over progression into better-paid work.

Key Findings

For many low-skilled people in the study, moving into work did not mean the disappearance of household poverty or feelings of financial strain. Often in minimum wage jobs, and sometimes working part-time, they described ‘struggling to get by’ or ‘just keeping their head above water’. Those in unstable work found it especially difficult to ‘get on an even keel’ because of built-up debt and delays in benefit payments.

Entering work from benefits (either from unemployment or looking after children) was a key transition period with a high risk of falling into a cycle of low-paid, unstable work. Low qualifications, being single, living in social housing and having a young child (under five years old) also made people more vulnerable to leaving a job.

Unstable jobs were largely of poor quality. Less than a quarter of those with unstable work received sick pay, less than a fifth said that they had opportunities for promotion or training at work, and only a handful had achieved promotion since starting work.

Even where people had stable jobs, progression did not automatically follow. A key enabler was being in a workplace that supported opportunities for progression, such as structured promotion pathways and training at work. This enabled people to feel supported in taking steps towards progression. Progression through moving jobs presented more of a risk for people. Financial support and high-quality careers advice were crucial to making this transition.

Many people were also doubtful about their ability or capacity to move into more highly paid work; they lacked confidence in their abilities and were ambivalent towards opportunities to progress. Highly skilled and proactive careers coaches were needed to encourage and engage such people.

PSI researcher Kathryn Ray, who led the study, said:

“More needs to be done to enable low-skilled and part-time workers to progress at work if the government’s aspiration of supporting people to move out of poverty through sustainable employment is to be realised. A range of barriers including poor rights for temporary and agency workers, inadequate careers advice services and non-existent or inaccessible career ladders in workplaces mean that low-skilled workers often become stuck in low-paid work without prospect of being able to move into something better.”



The research was carried out by a team at the Policy Studies Institute, led by Kathryn Ray. The study was commissioned and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as part of a programme of research on recurrent poverty. The research was undertaken between 2008 and 2009 and included secondary analysis of survey and depth interview data from the evaluation of the government’s Employment Retention and Advancement Demonstration, plus new depth interviews with programme participants.

For further information and comment contact Kathryn Ray:

(t) 020 7911 7525

The report is published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

Better off Working? Work, poverty and benefit cycling, by Kathryn Ray, Lesley Hoggart, Sandra Vegeris and Rebecca Taylor