The Covenant of Employability

by Alan Mackie

One of the major changes to education and employment policy over the past thirty years has been the shift in how employment is framed. A relatively obscure term until the 1990s, the concept of employability is now central to labour market policy in the UK (and beyond). Driven by the pressures of globalisation and the acceleration of technological progress, governments around the world have prioritised the ‘flexibilisation’ of the workforce in order to adapt more swiftly to market requirements. Economic success and social well-being rest upon the ability of governments, organisations and individuals to adapt and respond rapidly to the ever-increasing forces of globalisation and maintaining employability is seen as central to this.

The concept of employability itself is highly contested. Definitions tend to fall into one of two categories — the ‘narrow’ and the ‘broad’ (McQuaid, 2005). Broad definitions of employability pay heed to the contextual factors affecting unemployment — local employment opportunities, childcare responsibilities and transport links amongst innumerable other factors. Narrow definitions, on the other hand, tend to place all the focus of employability on individuals — their motivation, aspiration and other personal characteristics. It is these that dominate policy in the UK.

This individualistic conception drives what Peck & Theodore (2000) term a ‘supply-side fundamentalism’ where individuals are implored, and now increasingly compelled, to price themselves into work. Employability represents a ‘new covenant’ or ‘new psychological contract’ — we can no longer expect jobs (particularly stable and secure jobs) to be handed to us (Baruch, 2001; De Cuyper et al, 2008). We have to strive to make ourselves in demand, up-skill and ready to compete. This focus on the individual fails to grasp the duality of employability as employment opportunities are inevitably governed by economic conditions and the state of local labour markets (Simmons and Thompson, 2011). Conceived in this way, ‘unemployment is not a collective problem, rather primarily the responsibility of the unemployed themselves; the obvious corollary is that our own ability and proclivity to work is rendered the chief explanation for affluence or hardship’ (Berry, 2014: 594).

It should be noted that employability is not in itself an inherently negative concept. Many writers note that the new covenant presents workers with new freedoms. Notions of the ‘boundaryless career’ or ‘protean career’, it is argued, allow individuals to conceive of employment security in new ways — a new freedom to move jobs when desired, a push towards the benefits of lifelong learning and the opportunity for young people to fast-track up the career ladder (Brown et al, 2003; Clarke and Patrickson, 2008).

Unfortunately, research suggests that this is the experience for only a tiny elite (Brown et al, 2003). The reality is that power lies with employers and the ‘risk’ attached to employability has been largely transferred onto the shoulders of workers. This shift represents flexibility for employers, not flexibility for employees. Employees are free to change employers, they are not free from the need to make a living (Cuervo et al, 2013). In turn, employability frees employers from the moral or social obligations to employees.

It is also imperative to highlight the relational aspect of employability — and this is crucial for understanding how the new covenant impacts on young people at the stickier end of the employability agenda. As the number of stable and well-remunerated job opportunities become ever more scarce, it is those with credentials and social capital who are able to access these opportunities when they arise. The competition means that inequalities are being made anew and, more worryingly, further embedded. Structural determinants are still in operation as they ever were but research suggests they may be changing with new winners and losers — who is losing out and who is benefiting? Race, gender, disability and other factors are still in operation for sure but the young working-class may be the biggest losers in this new covenant, for a number of reasons, not the least of which it is those with qualifications (the better-off, typically) who are better placed to seize opportunities (Heinz, 2009; Smith, 2009; Standing, 2014). A less well-known phenomena seems to be the impact of the collapse of the manufacturing sector and the growth of the service sector (and its importance at the lower end of the employment market). This means that people’s working lives now involve a high degree of face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction with others (customers, clients, work colleagues).

This means that interpersonal skills, personality and appearance take on crucial significance in terms of the ability initially to access, and then to maintain, employment — i.e. to improve their employability. Employers are now placing central importance on finding workers that both ‘look good’ and ‘sound right” — ‘aesthetic labour’ (Nickson et al, 2012). They also have to have the ability to respond emotionally to customers — relate to them, be sensitive to their requirements, show courtesy and a certain decorum (McIntyre, 2014). As such, the service sector looks to those that are ‘oven-ready’ — students for example who possess these ‘middle-class’ qualities (Warhurst and Nickson, 2007). As the job market becomes more compressed with over-qualified people, underemployment becomes an increasing issue for those with degrees and postgrads. We then get the ‘displacement’ effect as downward pressure in the employment race is pushing those at the stickier end even further out of the running. Surplus to requirement, seemingly lacking the right look and pushed out of the running in a competitive youth labour market. Research points instead to a secondary labour market, contingent economy or ‘churn’ where young working-class people can get stuck — moving in and out of training, education schemes, unemployment and temporary low-paid, low-security Mcjobs (Peck and Theodore, 2000; MacDonald, 2011; Simmons et al, 2014)

So, to bring it all round, what is missed by the narrow employability agenda that we currently operate under? In one word — context. And in policy terms, unemployment is no longer the responsibility of the state — employability is the responsibility of you. We’ve gone from a commitment to full employment to a commitment to full employability. It’s up to all of us to ensure we have the ‘skillsets’ ready to embrace that challenge, beat aside our competitors and strive, constantly, to improve ourselves.


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