Steve Bain

Barriers to Work & Employment

By Steve Bain

The identification of certain barriers to work has followed on from many decades of high unemployment in the former manufacturing and mining communities of the UK. These barriers do also exist in the other western economies that have experienced significant deindustrialization, but the term is more popular in the UK.

By barriers to work, we are talking about additional factors that impede a person from gaining employment over and above the standard challenges that all prospective employees face in the job market.

These barriers to employment usually relate to one or more of:

  • skill shortages
  • mental health difficulties
  • lack of local opportunities
  • lack of labour mobility

Government funded projects to tackle these barriers, bundled under the worklessness agenda, have been met with varying levels of success. Many of the most deprived communities continue to experience much higher levels of 'worklessness' and 'hidden unemployment' than other communities, and there remains a lot of work to be done to effectively address these problems.

Barriers to employment and how to overcome them

There are two potential solutions that could help to reduce barriers to work, and they are the same approaches to raising employment in any area, whether deprived or not. I'm referring to the broad influences on the supply of, and demand for, labour.

There have been some isolated cases where the number of jobs in a deprived area has increased substantially. Typically this results from a surge of 'inward investment' into the area following physical development of key resources e.g. airports, sea-ports, road and rail infrastructure, development of 'enterprise zones' with favourable tax incentives, international marketing of investment opportunities and financial incentives for foreign firms that invest in these zones, etc.

As a general rule, these sorts of demand-side solutions have been poorly managed and cost an enormous amount of taxpayers money for every job that they have created.

The more typical approach is to focus on the supply-side of the equation, and particularly on improving the 'employability' of key target groups. Evidence of success here is limited, and almost totally absent if by success we mean eradication of any excess levels of unemployment. Success with these projects comes more in the form of reductions of deprivation and slight, but significant, improvements in the labour market.

Low Skills & Disability

Low Skills and No Skills

The lack of appropriate work-related skills in the local workforce is arguably the single most important factor that sustains the under-performance of local economies. It's important to recall that the most deprived areas did not become deprived because skills in the local labour market disappeared - it was actually because traditional jobs disappeared.

Nevertheless, antiquated skills and the declining levels of education & learning that accompany these job losses act to perpetuate the problem. For more details, see my article about the effects of unemployment & worklessness.

If you are unfamiliar with the types of problems associated with low/no skills, then here is a brief guide starting with the most elementary:

  • Lack of Soft Skills - By 'soft skills' I'm referring to the most elementary skills of all, skills that are so basic that most people would regard them as immediately obvious or instinctive. It includes things like dressing appropriately for an interview, being punctual for that interview, reliably turning up for work each day, communication in a polite and respectful manner, maintaining control of emotions, and so on. Sadly, many of these skills are severely lacking in the most deprived communities.
  • Lack of Basic Skills - These skills refer to the basic numeracy and literacy skills needed for basic employability, as well as basic vocational skills like computer and information technology literacy.
  • Academic and Professional Skills - Due to the lack of the more elementary skills in deprived areas, government funded projects to assist people into jobs tend to focus less on these more advanced skills. In fact, the few people who possess them tend to be quite capable of assisting themselves into work, either within the local area or in another area with better prospects.

Projects to help people with soft-skills and basic-skills have shown some measure of success in terms of improving employability, and there is evidence that it helps people to gain employment, and to stay in employment for longer periods once a job is gained. Success rates are far from overwhelming, but assistance with these skills is a vital stepping stone to gaining better employment in future, and breaking the intergenerational cycle of deprivation.

Disability & Help with Mental Health Problems

Another major hurdle to improvements in the supply of labour comes in the form of disability and mental health problems. Whilst there have been bogus health claims filed by significant numbers of the 'hidden unemployed' in order to evade the need to search for work, there is a growing proportion of the workforce that genuinely suffers from this sort of disability as worklessness persists.

The main types of mental health problems are:

  • Reduced Aspirations to Work - which can directly limit the person's life chances with regard to financial independence¬† and a normal standard of living.
  • Poor Motivation Levels - whether because of a lack of productive role models or unsupportive social influences, lack of motivation to succeed is a problem.
  • Reduced Self-Confidence - without active involvement in a productive endeavour, important experiences are missed, with resulting confidence issues.
  • Increased Anxiety, Stress & Depression - an state of reliance upon the welfare system, and the generosity of others, develops a sense of helplessness leading to anxiety and insecurity. Many workless people suffer from stress and depression.

Again government funded projects have had some limited success in helping to ease these problems, with confidence building projects and personal support, but the extent of the problems are often so severe that any intervention is bound to be of limited impact.

Low Income Jobs and Temporary Employment

Once ingrained in a community, the deteriorating skills base of the workers in that community along with the mental health difficulties that follow means that the only realistic employment options for a large proportion of the workforce are entry-level low income jobs.

This sort of employment is not often associated with a long career, even in more economically active communities, and it tends to lead to temporary employment either because a better opportunity comes along or, more typically, because the employee gets disillusioned with it and quits (or his/her standard of work slips resulting in dismissal). This can lead to work history gaps that sometimes present yet another barrier to employment.

Long-term success from working to remove the employment barriers in these communities is severely restricted due to the welfare trap which makes low-paid jobs financially unattractive (because the loss of welfare benefits when taking such a position leaves little to no reward from working). It's this lack of reward that causes so many workers to become disillusioned, and without a change to the welfare system to remove this trap then real improvements to income and employment in deprived communities will, in all probability, continue to be elusive.

There are other barriers to employment that I have not discussed, in particular those that affect particular groups like lone parents and affordable childcare facilities, but the main general problems are as discussed above.

In the UK, an issue that might have been talked about is the relatively poor level of labour mobility i.e. where an employee (or potential employee) is willing and able to relocate to another area with better career prospects. In the US this is known to be much less of a problem, but for some reason many Europeans are less mobile.


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