When London went into lockdown in March, Baltasar Romero quickly realised his job as a reservations manager might be in trouble. The team he was managing was cut from 10 people to just one, and his hours were reduced by a third.
“It was clear that working in hospitality was going to be quite difficult for the next few years,” says the 34-year-old. “In August, they made my position redundant. So they made it very easy for me to just jump into a radical change.”
In September, he started a three-month, full-time software-engineering course. He says a change had been in the cards for some time, and the pandemic was just the push he needed. Romero adds that his affinity for technology seemed to make the career a good fit, but the regular calls from the industry for more coders certainly helped make his decision.
“It seems that sooner or later everybody should jump into this environment,” he says.
As the pandemic has put millions out of work and is hastening the reshaping of entire industries, workers around the world are seeing signals that new skills will be the key to steady employment in the 'new normal'. For example, in September, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans aimed at upskilling workers in the form of free college courses, digital-skills bootcamps and more apprenticeships to “build back better from coronavirus”.
In September, Baltasar Romero started a three-month, full-time software-engineering course to transition from his job in hospitality (Credit: Baltasar Romero)
But experts say there’s little point training millions of people in new technical skills if there aren’t enough jobs at the end of it. “It could work for an individual, but it doesn't work as an economic policy,” says Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon. “Every time there's an economic problem job training is trotted out… and it's never worked."
The pandemic was still a few months away when 42-year-old Claire Winterbottom, from Leeds, started her reskilling journey. She had taken adoption leave from her job as a debt advisor, and decided to use the time to retrain as a web developer. She’d always been interested in technology, but was also keen to “future-proof” herself.
In January, she secured a place on a free four-month course aimed at women. She was told all but two of the previous cohort had secured technology jobs. But this year’s course finished in April, at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave, and nearly seven months later only four of her class of 16 have found work in the industry. Winterbottom says it’s hardly surprising as the recession bites, and demand for new developers dries up. “You're also up against other people who've taken the pandemic to learn how to code. So, there’s more people with more skills, but there's less jobs,” she adds.
The idea that the precarious position workers find themselves in today could be solved by training is particularly illogical, says Lafer, who has been studying job-training schemes in the US since the 1980s. People are out of work because the pandemic has shuttered huge swathes of the economy, not because of a lack of skills. “If job training was ever going to work it's not now,” he says.
If job training was ever going to work it's not now – Gordon Lafer
But even before the pandemic, the narrative of reskilling was on shaky ground. As the twin forces of globalisation and technological progress have eroded well-paid blue-collar jobs and routine office work, governments have regularly promoted it as the solution. The logic is that as industries like manufacturing decline and others like IT boom, there’s a growing gap between the skills employers need and those of workers, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) related fields. Teaching workers in-demand skills, such as coding, could therefore kill two birds with one stone: meeting industry needs while helping displaced workers revamp their careers.
But the evidence doesn’t back up the assertion of a ‘skills gap’.
Former US Department of Labor chief economist Heidi Shierholz has pointed out that the clearest signal of such a problem would be occupations with a combination of low unemployment and strong wage growth, reflecting competition for those with in-demand skills. But this evidence is consistently lacking; in 2018, only occupations in the legal field came close. In reality, employers report difficulty hiring because the wages they offer don’t match the skills they’re after, she says.
(Credit: Claire Winterbottom)
If anything, the numbers point to an oversupply of skills, says Hal Salzman, a sociologist at Rutgers University. In a 2018 paper, he and colleagues showed that only about 60 to 70% of US computing and engineering graduates land jobs in STEM, dropping to between 10 and 50% for those studying life sciences, physical sciences and maths. A study from the Office for National Statistics published last year recorded similar evidence in the UK that a shortage of skills is not the issue. The data showed that 16% of workers in 2017 were overeducated for their jobs, which rose to 31% for graduates.
Lafer says that part of the problem is that the occupations people are typically encouraged to retrain for represent a small fraction of total jobs, and that in many places, technology is being used to automate tasks to eliminate the need for trained employees.
Why, then, do policymakers and business leaders continue to focus on reskilling? Lafer thinks it gives them an easy way out by laying the blame for workers’ dim employment prospects on their failure to acquire the right skills rather than facing up to deeper structural changes in the economy. He says that a better option might be a push for better pay and conditions in other in demand industries that employ lots of people but are poorly rewarded such as construction, healthcare and education. But that debate is contentious, he admits.
You're also up against other people who've taken the pandemic to learn how to code, so there’s more people with more skills, but there's less jobs – Claire Winterbottom
For Marcela Escobari at the Brookings Institution, the focus on reskilling is less a ‘conspiracy’ against workers than a tangle of misaligned incentives and over-eagerness for a silver bullet. Last December, she and colleagues published a report called Realism About Reskilling, which concluded that a myopic focus on skills obscures the numerous other barriers that can trap workers in dead-end jobs.
“There's definitely places where skills matter. But there's a lot of other reasons why people are churning through low-wage jobs that don't see any mobility,” she says.
When they studied real-world job transitions, they found most didn’t require retraining. It was more about picking the right industry to move into, either because their existing skills were a good match or demand was high in their area. She and colleagues created an online tool that uses real-world data on job transitions to tell people what roles others in their occupation and area have successfully moved to. They also hope employers will look at the results to work out what industries they should be hiring from.
She says policymakers should focus on making these kinds of transitions easier. That could include creating portable benefits that allow workers to take things like health plans and retirement plans with them when they switch employers, but also incentivising employers to create more entry level positions and reverse decades of funding cuts to internal training schemes.
After Stefanie Lis was furloughed from her restaurant job amid the pandemic, she studied coding online (Credit: Nick Olexyn)
But she says there also needs to be more effort to remove barriers for those in genuine need of reskilling who are typically the least able to access it. For low-wage workers, it often comes down to simple logistics: being able to take time off work, or having a car to get to training classes. And because reskilling programs are often measured on their outcomes, they frequently screen candidates to select those most likely to succeed.
That’s not to say reskilling is a universally bad idea for individuals. Stefanie Lis, 28, was put on furlough from her restaurant job in Leeds during the pandemic, and used the time to study coding online. Three months later, she secured a paid internship with Manchester web development company Huddle, which has since turned into a job.
She’s adamant that the huge amount of free or cheap online resources available today means anyone can learn to code if they put their mind to it. But she is conscious that the furlough allowed her to treat learning as a full-time job, and she was lucky to find an employer willing to take on a fledgling developer. “They've just really taken the time to be patient and show me things and support me."
Despite her struggles so far, Winterbottom is also confident she will eventually find work as a developer. But if she does, she says it’ll be down to her passion for coding, not to mention the fact she’s already employed and doesn’t have to worry about bills piling up. She adds that there’s no way it makes sense for everyone, and she thinks its disingenuous for politicians to suggest that this is the answer to the havoc the pandemic has wrought on the job market.
“You've got to work so hard at it and do all these extra activities and just immerse yourself fully. Without that passion, I can't see them getting anywhere.”