Time to put away the AI and data science crystal ball – today’s workforce needs you

Prioritising improvements to conditions for frontline workers is the best way to set up the health, care and education sectors for long-term growth, say Mathew Johnson and Eva Herman

The rapid advancement of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and data science has led to widespread discussion about what the future world of work will look like.

While job displacement and retraining are issues that leaders need to have in mind, this kind of crystal ball gazing around the future of work may distract us from understanding and addressing the more immediate challenges that many of us face. Right now, employers are struggling to attract workers for vital roles, particularly in the often overlooked foundational economy, which provides essential goods and services to households such as health, social care and emergency services, along with education and childcare, retail, transport, energy and utilities.

Although its component parts may seem somewhat disparate, the foundational economy directly provides jobs to more than 40 per cent of the UK workforce, many of which are difficult to be automated.

And while successive governments have discussed long-term plans for health, education and care services, demographic changes mean that demand is already outstripping supply: at the end of 2022 it was estimated that there were 165,000 vacancies in social care in the UK (up 52 per cent year on year) and the turnover rate was close to 31 per cent. Similarly, in early childhood education and care turnover rates are estimated to be around 28 per cent in the private sector and providers report running at below capacity because they are short staffed.

For leaders in the foundational economy, this presents a far more pressing issue than worrying about hypothetical scenarios for the future of work.

The value of the foundational economy

Part of the reason for high staff turnover and vacancies is that such roles continue to be low paid and undervalued. Median hourly wages in elder care are around £11 per hour and in early childhood education and care are around £10 per hour, which is some way short of the UK median of £14.72. Many workers only receive pay rises when the minimum wage goes up each April and some report being paid the minimum wage for most of their careers (despite years of service and on-the-job training).

The conventional economic explanation for low pay is that such jobs are ‘low skilled’ and ‘low productivity’ – but the economic value of the foundational economy is significant. Health and education alone account for around 6 per cent of gross value added for England overall and around 8 per cent of all employment.

The social and economic contributions that high-quality universal services make to families, communities and local economies are substantial: they allow parents to go to work; they help prepare children for school; and allow older people to live with support, care and dignity. 

The International Labour Organization predicts that human health and social care is one of the few growth industries that can continue to create jobs that are inherently low carbon. Expanding and investing in health and social care could also reduce the burden of unpaid care that falls mostly on women.

Clearly, growth in frontier sectors such as life sciences, digital technology and advanced manufacturing will be important to deliver the high-skill/high-wage jobs that underpin the future prosperity of the UK. At the same time, we need to make careers in frontline health, education and social care more attractive now if we are to avoid a worsening crisis of poor-quality work and patchy services.

A fairer future for frontline workers

A greater recognition of the social and economic value of foundational economy jobs should begin with a ‘bundle’ of progressive human resource management practices, such as good working conditions, employee voice and long-term training and career progression routes. 

Better funding for universal basic services, along with a real living wage for workers, would help to tackle some of these short-term problems, while also providing a platform for a more equitable distribution of earnings in the future. One example of this in practice is in Germany, where recent reforms have seen more money pumped into frontline services while also providing pay increases of 18 per cent for entry-level social care staff and 22 per cent for fully qualified care staff. This, combined with support for long-term training and career development, will promote workforce quality and sustainability and aim to reduce the recurring costs of high staff turnover.

High-profile pay disputes in the UK have also highlighted the problem of sluggish wage growth within the health and education sectors, but early childhood education and care and elder care services are often funded from local authority budgets – which have been squeezed significantly since 2010.

While individual local authorities have attempted to model good practice through their own commissioning and procurement practices, coordinated reforms are needed to raise the status and social valuation of the caring profession. This would send a powerful signal that jobs in the foundational economy are valuable to society as well as the economy.

Mathew Johnson and Eva Herman are lecturers at Alliance Manchester Business School