What is a 'low skilled job'?

10-11-2004

CBI boss Digby Jones has predicted that unskilled and semi-skilled employees will be out of a job within 10 years, largely because of UK firms relocating their telephone-based work abroad.

But can any job really be unskilled?

The most high-profile outsourcing of work to other countries has been in the call centre sector.

Amicus national officer David Fleming said the implication that call centre work was low skilled was an inaccurate one.

"Some of the work is very complex," he told BBC News.

"We have identified 26 different jobs within this type of work.

"Call centre workers can deal with very sensitive issues, particularly if someone's house has just been flooded - that requires excellent people skills.

"With off-shoring, at the moment people are seeing it as a big cost saving but in five years time the costs will go up and, as costs rise, these operations may have to move back to the UK."

If that happened then the traditional places for UK call centres, like Norwich and Liverpool, would no longer be equipped to handle such operations, he added.

'Thriving industry'

But the CCA, the professional body for contact centres, says the "low value jobs" mentioned by Mr Jones are not call centre jobs and that the industry is thriving in the UK.

And the CBI says call centres account for only 14% of jobs moved abroad - "well behind other services".

Mr Fleming said it was increasingly difficult to know what was meant by the terms "low skilled" and "unskilled" jobs.

"It's a difficult one," he said.

"I think it's seen as describing a low cost, low value job."

But research carried out by Amicus showed it was wrong to assume off-shoring - the practice of relocating work abroad - was only used for low skilled jobs, he said.

The research found that roles "from Wall Street analyst to human resources professionals" had been off-shored.

Dr Hilary Steedman, of the London School of Economics, agreed that the notion of outsourcing low-skilled work to other countries could be seen as misleading.

"People who work in outsourced jobs in India, for example, are often very qualified because graduate unemployment is quite high out there," she told BBC News.

"The employers will be mopping up highly-skilled people there."

'Qualification lag'

Dr Steedman is the author of a recent Department for Education and Skills paper comparing the skill levels of British workers with other countries.

The paper judged unskilled workers as being those without GCSE grade A to C qualifications or level two qualification in NVQs or other vocational qualifications.

The research showed that 64% of the UK's workforce had achieved this level of qualification compared with an equivalent of 73% in the US, 77% in France and 85% in Germany.

"UK employers don't actually require qualifications as frequently as their European counterparts," she said.

She said that low skilled or unskilled jobs were considered "predominantly" to be in hospitality and catering.

"The retail sector is be a very large employer too," she added.

"Manufacturing still has quite a high prevalence of low skilled workers but is declining more.

"Low skilled workers are more likely to be found in the service sector and these sort of jobs can't really be offshored."

But this did not mean good news for the future employment prospect of low skilled workers based in the UK, she warned.

"Of course the fact that these jobs can't be off-shored doesn't stop employers bringing in people in from overseas to do those jobs.

"That's happening more and more."

BBC News

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