This increased concern over job quality in the UK was initially formalised by Prime Minister Theresa May when she commissioned Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA to undertake a review of modern working practices. One of the key recommendations made by the Commission in its report was that the UK Government should identify a set of metrics against which it will measure success in improving work, and report annually on the quality of work on offer in the UK. Responding to this recommendation the UK Government committed to enact this recommendation and engaged with a Working Group chaired by the RSA and the Carnegie Trust. They sought to respond directly to this specific recommendation and consider the practical steps required to implement a set of national job quality metrics.
Similarly, the importance of job quality has now been recognised separately in Northern Ireland. Specifically, the draft Programme for Government published just prior to the collapse of the Assembly in 2016 had included a commitment to increase the number of people working in ‘better jobs’ and to track the quality of work in Northern Ireland via a ‘Better Jobs Index’. Such a measure does not currently exist, although a commitment remains for its development – and indeed work to this end is ongoing in the Department for the Economy. There has, however, been little information to date as to what might be included in the final ‘Better Jobs Index’, how it will be presented or the steps being taken to reach a consensus on the metric that will be used. This is made all of the more complicated by the fact that there is no commonly agreed set of metrics used to describe job quality, track it over time, compare it between different contexts or groups of people and analyse whether the quality of jobs is improving or worsening. That said the recently published report from the RSA and the Carnegie Trust titled ‘Measuring Good Work’ provides, from a Northern Ireland point of view, a particularly useful summary of existing measures of job quality and also gives policy pointers for the development of a measure of job quality. In terms of the development of the ‘Better Jobs Index’ it is a very timely publication. Specifically, there are two recommendations made in the ‘Measuring Good Work’ report that are of particular pertinence to the ‘Better Jobs Index’ and which should be seriously reflected upon by those involved in its development.
The first relates to the conclusion that an accurate assessment of job quality cannot be achieved through a single metric such as that proposed in Northern Ireland. The point is made that because job quality is a complex, and multi-faceted concept and so may require varied policy interventions, the different aspects of job quality need to be understood, measured and reported on separately. To this end the report recommends that seven dimensions should be used to assess quality of work annually by the UK Government, and presented via a dashboard. These include pay and benefits; job design and the nature of employment including job security; health and safety at work; work-life balance; social support and cohesion; voice and representation. Previous research conducted on job quality by the NERI leads us to share this view, as it becomes clear when a number of measures of job quality are collapsed together not only is the nuance lost and variations in particular indicators masked behind an average, but also as a result it is more difficult to determine the correct policy levers to improve particular aspects of job quality.
Secondly, the ‘Measuring Good Work’ report recommends that consideration needs to be given to the concept of a minimum baseline of job quality. This recommendation is particularly important in Northern Ireland given that the proposed measure is called a ‘Better Jobs Index’. The immediate follow-on from this from a policy point of view needs to be ‘Better than what?’. Will a ‘better job’ be one that has seen small improvements across many aspects of job quality? Or will a ‘better job’ be defined as one that has seen big improvements across one aspect of job quality? or will there be some threshold or description given as to what is a poor-quality job with only growth in jobs above some agreed upon threshold being counted as demonstrating an increase in better jobs? The NERI has been following very closely the developments in relation to the measurement of job quality both in the UK and in Northern Ireland, and are specifically engaged in the issue of how the RSA and Carnegie Trust’s recommendations relates to the ‘Better Jobs Index’ in Northern Ireland.