Better work and working lives for Northern Ireland

Better work and working lives for Northern Ireland

By Marek Zemanik – Senior Public Policy Adviser. 

My last blog, looking at some of the political and policy issues that are likely to dominate the NI Assembly election, was published exactly two days before Paul Givan resigned as First Minister. After a few days of conflicting reports and conclusions as to what would happen next, I am pleased that the analysis in the blog has not changed. Political campaigning by all possible means has simply ramped up. 

What did change, however, is that thanks to some amazing colleagues at the CIPD, we managed to bring forward the publication of our manifesto by a week. Rather aptly, Better work and working lives for Northern Ireland, with our 22 policy recommendations, has been published on 22/02/2022. With global and domestic events dominating news coverage, we were delighted to have a piece in HR Magazine as well as the Belfast Telegraph. This blog offers a quick summary of some of our key recommendations. 

Job quality in a changing world 

The pandemic shift to homeworking has exposed clear differences – between those whose jobs can and cannot be done remotely, between those who have suitable home office premises and those who do not, those who have access to fast internet and those living in not-spots, those living alone and those within social bubbles or with caring responsibilities. Work relationships have changed, mental wellbeing has been under strain, and the lines between work and life have become blurrier for many. Job quality has never been more important. 

The CIPD’s purpose is to champion better work and working lives, and therefore our first recommendation is for the NI Executive to continue deepening its focus on job quality. This means embedding job quality across all areas of public policy, applying job quality principles as a large employer and throughout the public sector, and continued support for job quality research – including through the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. 

However, we know that there still is little understanding of what job quality means in practice and, crucially, what investing in good people practice can result in. There is a growing body of research which shows that improving job quality leads to a more engaged and satisfied workforce, with improved staff retention and productivity. This in turn means more productive businesses and, ultimately, better labour productivity for the country as a whole. 

Given Northern Ireland’s particularly acute productivity challenges, it makes sense to focus on job quality alongside other productivity drivers. Improving understanding, showing evidence and providing guidance and support to change practice should therefore be a key plank of the approach to job quality. Boosting people management skills, for example through a variation of the CIPD’s People Skills model, will be key. 

Our manifesto also makes the point that it is crucial that homeworking does not become synonymous with flexible working – not all jobs can be done from home, not everybody can work from home and not everybody wants to work from home. Compressed hours, flexitime or job-sharing may be more suitable options for some employees. Making the right to request flexible working a day one employment right, as well as a Flexible Work Challenge Fund could both help embed some of these options further. 

Flexible and responsive skills development

While the pandemic changed the context within which policy-makers and people professionals operate, it has not changed some of the fundamental trends that our economies – and our skills development systems in particular – need to prepare for. The spread of automation and technological advances, Northern Ireland’s changing demographics and our ageing workforce in particular, as well as persistent economic inequalities all require a flexible, responsive skills development system. 

Our manifesto argues for a re-evaluation of three kinds of balance: 

First, the balance between vocational and academic skills development. Given the levels of overqualification we see in Northern Ireland, it seems clear that some rebalancing towards vocational education and work-based learning is necessary. This has to mean redirecting funding, reforming careers guidance and a cross-departmental commitment to the new Skills Strategy. 

We also talk about making the apprenticeship system easier to navigate, ring-fenced funding for Apprenticeship Levy-payers as well as targeted recruitment incentives. The two schemes that have been put in place in response to the pandemic have been welcome, but our evidence so far suggests that incentives work best when they are generous and targeted at small businesses, which are less likely to take on apprentices. 

Second, the balance between adult and youth skills development. The vast majority of funding in Northern Ireland (and other parts of the UK) is front-loaded and, understandably, aimed at youth skills development. Given the looming economic transitions we are facing – not least towards green technologies – much more emphasis needs to be given to upskilling, reskilling and lifelong learning. 

The CIPD has long argued for an overhaul in public policy to create a culture of lifelong learning. This will require a combination of steps, some short term and others long term. Providing skills development opportunities is of course only one part of the puzzle – removing barriers and stimulating demand are just as important. 

To that end, we argue for a targeted skills subsidy to cover lost income while training as well as an enhanced form of Individual Learning Account (ILA). Our evidence shows that ILAs work best when targeted at upskilling for those furthest away from the skills development system, with a buildable scheme and ‘use it or lose it’ funding. 

Third, the balance between long courses leading to qualifications and shorter, flexible buildable routes to qualifications: a greater emphasis on lifelong learning will need to be coupled with a different approach to skills development, be it in-work or classroom-based. The pandemic has forced some rapid changes in how some courses are delivered, but much more needs to be done to add flexibility into the system. Putting the SKILL UP fund on a permanent footing is therefore one of our recommendations too. 

A modern inclusive labour market 

Many of the day-to-day issues CIPD members have to navigate are linked to the legislative and regulatory employment framework in Northern Ireland. Much of this is under direct control of the NI Executive and it is incumbent on our policy-makers to ensure that employment law stays nimble, proportionate and up to date. As we start to look at how the world of work has changed due to the pandemic, we also need to think about where we need to make progress, while recognising the historical specificities of the existing set of rules. 

It is true to say that the pandemic has had an impact on everybody. However, we also need to recognise that it did not have an impact on everybody equally. At its most direct, we know that COVID-19 mortality rates are worse for those from ethnic minorities and for older people. Surveys show mental health has deteriorated further for women than for men. People with disabilities reported worsening physical health. And the economic impact of the pandemic was just as unequal, with young people and women disproportionately affected by the downturn. 

We know there is still a long way to go in achieving inclusion across workplaces in Northern Ireland. For example, our Working Lives Northern Ireland report found that around a fifth (19%) of all employees believe that people in their team sometimes reject others for being different. Over a quarter (26%) of all employees experienced at least one type of conflict at work, with 6% saying they experienced discriminatory behaviour. 

More broadly, our members working for UK-wide organisations told us that the complexity of navigating the growing differences between GB and NI employment legislation is now a significant burden. Some of the divergence is accidental and we would like the Executive to bring forward a new Employment Bill with the aim of consolidating employment and, ideally, equalities law where appropriate. This is even more important given changes, for example around rights for those on variable hours, being planned by the UK Government in the near future. The Executive will need to be responsive to ensure both employees and employers aren’t disadvantaged. Our members also want to see gender, ethnicity and disability pay gap reporting legislation enacted and an extension of paid bereavement leave to be introduced. 

We also make a few recommendations to help those with caring responsibilities. There are the tens of thousands of unpaid carers across Northern Ireland for whom balancing work commitments with caring responsibilities is difficult regardless of the pandemic. COVID-19 added further concerns about the wellbeing of those being cared for, in addition to job security concerns and upheaval in unpaid carers’ own working lives. Our own Working Lives Northern Ireland report shows that unpaid carers report higher presenteeism, poorer health and wellbeing, and worse work–life balance. We would like to see paid carer’s leave introduced, alongside tweaks to the Carer’s Allowance and greater availability of funded childcare. 

What next? 

We will now take our policy asks to all the political parties in the Assembly and will hope to see some of our recommendations in their election manifestos. As we make clear at the outset – we do have a good case for being heard. After all, it was the people profession that had to navigate unprecedented changes to working patterns, get to grips with everchanging regulations and support schemes, and support employees and their wellbeing through some of the most difficult times they have ever faced. People professionals’ experience and expertise are valuable resources – we hope they get used.