Employers need to be flexible if they want the best talent to progress

The rungs on the middle of the career ladder are becoming fewer and wider-spaced

Now that the UK jobs recovery is well embedded, with the working-age employment rate back to its pre-crisis peak, more attention is being paid to the types of jobs being created.

A key dimension of job quality, alongside pay and security, is the opportunity for career progression. The best jobs are often those with clear and widely-available access to training and promotion, enabling workers to gain skills and move to higher levels of pay throughout their working lives.

Our new research looks at the nature of progression across Europe. One striking finding in our paper is that men are more likely to progress to highly-skilled work than women. This state of affairs means that women are missing out on opportunities for better pay, more autonomy and security in work, as well as the greater job satisfaction that highly-skilled work can bring.

Our research compared workers’ occupation levels at the beginning and end of a four-year period to see how many people were moving in to higher-skilled work. Women were more likely to be in the same, or a lower, skill bracket after four years than men were. This pattern is common across Europe, where the only countries with more women than men progressing up the occupational scale are Portugal and Estonia.

A lack of progression opportunities is one of the reasons why women are often underemployed, overqualified for the work they are doing and forced to accept low-skill part-time roles. The pursuit of gender equality might in itself lead the government and employers to want to address this; but there is an economic argument to be made too.

The well-documented polarisation of the labour market – the number of middle-skill jobs declining while the share of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations expands – means that traditional progression opportunities, for men and women, are harder to come by.

The rungs on the middle of the career ladder are becoming fewer and wider-spaced, making it hard for employees to steadily progress through the ranks into high-skill occupations. At the same time, demand for high-skilled labour is outstripping supply, particularly in very specialised professions like ICT.

Naturally this has an impact on workers’ career paths, and left unchecked more and more workers will be stuck in low-income, low-skill jobs, while employers struggle to recruit for high-skill positions. Introducing greater flexibility into highly-skilled jobs could help solve these problems. More part-time opportunities in highly-skilled professions will help employers to get top talent into their vacancies; and will give qualified women the chance to progress alongside their male colleagues.

Previous IPPR research showed that across Europe 45 per cent of female workers would like to change their hours of work. While in the UK over three quarters of working women find taking one or two hours off work at short notice to attend to personal matters difficult. These figures illustrate the complexities of balancing employment with other demands, such as care-giving.

To support women to progress in the labour market, employers need to provide them with flexible working options at all skill-levels. Flexible start and finish times, opportunities to job-share, part-time and home working are all options that would improve the participation and progression of women in the labour market.

If employers with highly-skilled vacancies want to attract the best talent to their organisation, providing flexible working options will increase the pool of candidates, and help to stop the waste of women’s skills in the workplace.

 Izzy Hatfield is a researcher at IPPR. Follow her on Twitter

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