Western Mail Profiles: Dr Tony Dobbins

‘We need more jobs not just retraining’

Dr Tony Dobbins is senior lecturer in human resource management at Bangor University’s business school. One of his research projects investigates the impact of mass redundancy in Wales.

MY RESEARCH with colleagues at Bangor tracks workers’ experiences of redundancy and the impact on the local labour market, following closure in 2009 of a large employer, Anglesey Aluminium, in North Wales.

Drawing on accounts of redundancy from ex-workers from Anglesey Aluminium, the research considers two questions – does supply of re-skilling and re-training, of itself, improve job prospects for (ex) workers after redundancy and are conventional ways of looking at labour market policy adequate? The research looks at the relationship between supply of skills by workers and actual demand for those skills from employers.

The purpose of the research is to improve understanding, and inform policy, on the impact of mass redundancy in vulnerable regions like Anglesey in a climate of economic uncertainty in Wales.

Our initial findings show most ex-AA workers seeking work had found it, and many had taken re-training opportunities to prepare for new jobs. Others opt for early retirement or self-employment, while some move away to find work. Those in employment staying on Anglesey often enter insecure lower quality lower paid jobs below their skill level. We call this a pragmatic ‘make do and mend’ response to redundancy in difficult circumstances.

We discovered that many former Anglesey Aluminium workers find themselves overqualified but underemployed. Our key finding is that the Anglesey Aluminium story suggests even after workers retrained, their supply of particular skills did not, of itself, create its own demand from employers for their skills. There are broader underlying structural problems on Anglesey relating to the low quality of many low paid jobs. This has been thrown into sharp focus by the closure of Anglesey Aluminium – a high-paying former big employer – leaving an empty space in the local labour market.

In what is a zero sum game, not everyone can achieve upward mobility if there is fierce competition for a limited supply of good jobs. Without demand-side interventions supporting higher quality job opportunities for people to put their skills and training to use, there is a danger that drift towards out-migration and brain drain could continue in regions like Anglesey.

The current mismatch between skill supply and decent job opportunities reveals the limitations of supply-side policy responses focused on retraining people in isolation from demand-side measures. What is required is a coordinated jobs policy (focused on increasing employer demand for high quality jobs and skills in sectors like the green economy) to correct over-reliance on supply-side policy.

There are signs that Anglesey Council may be thinking along similar interventionist lines with the ‘Energy Island’ concept, which has a strategic vision for Anglesey as providing a mix of renewable and non-renewable energy sources including wind and wave, a second nuclear power plant and biomass.

Joined-up policy-making along these lines will be a necessary antidote to over-reliance on supply-side responses which, alone, are insufficient to create more decent jobs for the labour force in Wales. But government intervention at national level in Wales and Westminster is required also.

To contact Tony please email a.dobbins @bangor.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 17th December 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.